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Stats not Stories: Problems with our Islamic History

Admit it. You’re bored by Islamic History. Sure, you might say that you find it fascinating, but the likelihood is that you are far more likely to be enamoured by the idea of what Islamic history should be like rather than the history itself.

How can I justify saying this? Well, lets take any other aspect of life that you are definitely not bored by. The latest Star Wars movie perhaps, Super Bowl 50 or all 7 Harry Potter books. Anything at all. Odds are that you can remember a lot about them in vivid detail. But if you’re asked the same thing about pretty much any aspect of Islamic history, the details are likely to be nowhere near as clear or captivating.

islamic history book

Outsold by the story of a wizard kid by a factor of a Million to 1

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Relax. For once, it is not your fault.

Islamic history is the poor cousin of the Islamic sciences. It can often be poorly taught, poorly understood and even more poorly preserved. The blame for this partly falls on the shoulders of the Islamic historians themselves. Apart from some notable exceptions, many Islamic history books are dreary affairs over-filled with numbers, dates and exceptionally long names of individuals who sound very similar.

history quote

It is not that Islamic history itself is boring. On the contrary, I would make the case that no other history is as palpitation inducing, full of giddy highs and dramatic – seemingly bottomless – lows. However, even the most amazing thriller can go from awe to yawn if the main focus is on the factual details rather than the story itself.

explainafilmplotbadly

If the Dark Knight was described like your average text on Islamic history

In 2007 Deborah Small at the Wharton School of Business conducted an experiment to see how people would react to a charity campaign that was presented primarily using facts and figures as compared to the same campaign presented as a story. The outcome wasn’t even close. Stories trump stats every time. Or, as Stalin would say “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” He should know. He was kind of an expert on the subject.

stalin

Hipster Stalin – now he’s taken things too far.

In fact, we don’t need to look to modern research to prove this. The Quran itself is full of stories and lessons, but short on details. How many animals made it on to the Ark? Where exactly did Khidr live? What was the name of the Pharoah that was the arch-nemesis of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him)? The lack of facts and figures detracts nothing from the power of these stories and their ability to inspire and transform those hearing them.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) was explicit on this point when it came to the stories of the Companions of the Cave. Allah admonishes those who debate on the exact number of those in the cave saying “Now some say they were three and the fourth one is their dog and some will say they were five and the sixth one is their dog, guessing randomly at the unseen.” It is unfortunate that we don’t heed this lesson when it comes to how we teach our own Islamic history.

stat-stories-vs-statistics

From “Made to stick” by Chip and Dan Heath

Maya Angelou said ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ If we want our Islamic history to be relevant and life-changing, we need to put away the facts and figures and bring out the monsters and legends.

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Dr. Muhammad Wajid Akhter - Doctor, Medical Tutor (Social Media, History & Medicine) - Islamic Historian - Founder of, and current board member to Charity Week for Orphans and needy children. www.charityweek.com - Council member, British Islamic Medical Association

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Haadiya

    April 25, 2016 at 2:07 PM

    Why are muslim historians apologetic about Islamic History, if written, taught and related with zeal and strenght there is nothing more soul lifting and spirit raising than the events of our history. I wish some historian writes our Islamic history as it should be written, with courage and valour.

    • Avatar

      Tahera Salma

      April 26, 2016 at 2:52 AM

      This topic is so much needed and addressed and Infact it covered points what I have faced while studying Islamic history, I strongly feel the urge that Islamic history has to be retold, and brought to life, and should be added to syllabus as well where coming generations will know the facts and details and be guided. In sha Allah

  2. Avatar

    Shahin

    April 26, 2016 at 11:38 PM

    This reminds me of the time when I heard a lecture by someone about the statement of Abu Bakr (R) upon the death of the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam): “For whoever worshiped Muhammad, know that Muhammad is dead. But for whoever worshiped Allah, then He is the Ever-Living and never dies!”
    This statement stayed with me forever; in fact, I can still remember the intonation of the speaker’s voice when he said it. And it is such a powerful piece of history preserved in equally powerful rhetoric.

    The way you learn about history is very important indeed!

  3. Avatar

    jean santerre

    April 28, 2016 at 3:56 AM

    Really interstink thanks. I’ve also written this paper on the enduring deeds, may be he’ll interst you.

    The Baqiyat Salehat, the Enduring Good Deeds In Hadith and Qur’an: سُبْحَانَ اللّهِ ، والْحَمْدُللّهِ ، وَ لا اِلهَ اِلَّا اللّهُ ، وَ اللّهُ اَكْبَرُ –
    ***************************************************************************

    “Remember Me, and I shall remember you” (2:152)

    Hadith: “Those that remember Me in their heart, I remember them in My heart; and those that remember Me in a gathering (i.e. that make mention of Me), I remember them (i.e. make mention of them) in a gathering better than theirs.”

    Hadith: When asked, “O Messenger of Allah, who are the single-hearted?” he replied, “The men and women who remember Allah abundantly.”

    http://sayyidunanouh.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-baqiyat-salehat-enduring-good-deeds.html

    Website
    http://sayyidunanouh.blogspot.com/

  4. Avatar

    Abdullah Muhammed

    April 29, 2016 at 9:16 AM

    A good way to learn ISlamic History is by attending this lecture in chicago about “We have always been here” ITs May 15th.

    The legacy of the Prophets of Islam from Adam (عليه السلام) to Muhammad (ﷺ) is deeply rooted in demonstrating activism through conveyance of the message from Allah (سبحانه و تعالى).

    We Muslims must arise to the call of Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) when He commands in the Qur’an:

    وَلْتَكُن مِّنكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَأُوْلَئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

    And let there arise among you a group, inviting to all that is good (Islam), commanding al-Marouf (good) and forbidding al-Munkar (evil); and those are the ones whom are the successful. -[Translated meaning of Surah Al-e-Imran 3:104]

    Indeed the Prophet (ﷺ) has also stated in a Hadeeth as narrated by Imam Bayhaqi (ra), “There will be from the end of my Ummah a people that will be rewarded like the first generation as they enjoin the Maroof and forbid the Munkar”.

    Please join Hizb Ut-Tahrir-America at their annual Khilafah Conference titled “Muslim Political Activism- Aspiring to the work of the Prophets”.

    From Adam (عليه السلام) to Mohammed (ﷺ): continuing the call of the Prophets and Messengers
    “We have ALWAYS been here”: Recognizing our Muslim roots of Reverence and Perseverance
    Beyond Ballots: Political Activism in Islam
    Chicago, IL USA
    Sunday, May 15, 2016
    2-5 p.m.

    Hizb Ut-Tahrir-America
    https://hizb-america.org/

  5. Avatar

    Sakina

    April 29, 2016 at 10:18 AM

    I actually love history, and learning about Islamic history. Perhaps it is the materials that I have. I recommend anything written by Dr. Ali As-Sallabee as the translator does a great job, making the text wonderful to read. Also, many of his books have been made into movie series, such as the Umar ibn al Khattab series. They are in Arabic but have English subtitles and really bring you into history. I teach my children Islamic history as part of our lessons, and I narrate and read to them in language they understand. There are resources that we have that are dry and boring, so we don’t use them. There is actually a lot out there, you just have to look, and read more.

    • Avatar

      Khalida

      May 10, 2016 at 9:32 AM

      That’s interesting, Sakina!
      Although I’ve been learning Seerah since a young age, I never felt much of a connection to it. I couldn’t really understand why. I only truly started to love it when the teachers I started later studying under taught it differently. They didn’t simply mention historical incidents; they reflected on each event, each personality, and brought them to life for me. They taught me to make a personal connection with history, to see myself in their shoes and learn life lessons from them.

  6. Avatar

    Feresh

    May 7, 2016 at 3:51 PM

    100% agreed. Could anyone recommend some sources easy to read? Especially in the German sphere this topic seems to be abandoned (or at least that’s my perception).
    BTW, public speaking courses also teach you to use narrative formats as they catch the audience’s attention.

  7. Avatar

    Taban

    May 23, 2016 at 7:13 AM

    spot on !!!!actually today just i was watching quran cover to cover of surah israh by nouman ali khan … he was sharing a large part of history of both jews and muslims and their comparison…..i got bored and i felt gulity that i got bored…. Rest was all excellent but history part was boring

  8. Avatar

    Taban

    June 11, 2016 at 7:21 PM

    well his ramadan series of surah baqarah is excellent…he is giving detailed account of history in an enjoyable way….May Allah bless him Aameen

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#Society

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks: An Obituary

This article was originally published at Al-Madinah Institute.

 

An internationally recognised Islamic scholar, who saw spirituality, justice, and knowledge as integral to an authentic religious existence.

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Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, who passed away on the 9th of July 2020 at the age of 64, was a scholar of international repute, able to communicate and engage on the level of state leaders, religious scholars and the broader public. As a scion of one of the most prominent Islamic institutions in South Africa and internationally, who also spent a decade studying at the hands of the most prominent of Makkan scholars, he not only inherited a grand bequest, but expanded that legacy’s impact worldwide. In particular, he upheld a normative understanding of Islam, embedded in a tradition stretching back more than a millennium – but deeply cognisant of the needs of the age, including the need to strive to make the world a better place.

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks was a high school English teacher between 1980 and 1982 in Cape Town before leaving for Saudi Arabia in 1983 to study at the Umm al-Qura University in Makka. Before this, he spent many years studying particularly at the feet of his illustrious uncle, the late Shaykh Mahdi Hendricks – erstwhile Life President of the Muslim Judicial Council and widely regarded as one of the foremost scholars of Islam in southern Africa – as well as his father, Imam Hassan Hendricks.

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks studied the Islamic sciences for more than a decade in the holy city of Makka, spending three years at the Arabic Language Institute in Makka studying Arabic and related subjects, before being accepted for the BA (Hons) Islamic Law degree. He specialised in fiqh and usul al-fiqh in the Faculty of Shariʿa of Umm al-Qura University and graduated in 1992. Shaykh Seraj took ijazat from both the late Sayyid Ahmad Mashur al-Haddad and Sayyid ʿAbd al-Qadir b. Ahmad al-Saqqaf, as well as his extensive time spent with the likes of Shaykh Hasan Mashhat and others. These scholars are all known as some of the pre-eminent ‘ulama of the ummah in the 20th century, worldwide.

Additionally, he obtained a full ijaza in the religious sciences from his primary teacher, the muḥaddith of the Hijaz, the distinguished al-Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawi al-Maliki, master of the Ṭarīqa ʿUlamaʿ Makka – the (sufi) path of the Makkan scholars. Together with his brother, the esteemed Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, Shaykh Seraj and I wrote a book on this approach to Sufism entitled, “A Sublime Way: the Sufi Path of the Sages of Makka”. Alongside his brother, he became the representative (khalifa) of the aforementioned muhaddith of the Hijaz.

Further to his religious education, Shaykh Seraj was also actively engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa during the 80’s and early 90’s, alongside the likes of figures like Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, comrade of Nelson Mandela, and the renowned journalist, Shafiq Morton. His commitments to furthering justice meant insistence on expressing constant opposition to injustice, while fiercely maintaining the independence of the institution and community he pledged himself to his entire life. At a time when different forces in Muslim communities worldwide try to instrumentalise religious figures for partisan political gain, Shaykh Seraj showed another, arguably far more Prophetic, model.

The shaykh also was keenly supportive of the rights of women, whom he saw as important to empower and cultivate as religious figures themselves. His students, of which there were many thousands over the years, included many women at various levels of expertise. I know it was his wish that they would rise to higher and higher levels, and he took a great deal of interest in trying to train them accordingly, aware that many unnecessary obstacles stood in their way.

After his return to Cape Town he received an MA (Cum Laude) for his dissertation: “Tasawwuf (Sufism) – Its Role and Impact on the Culture of Cape Islam” from the University of South Africa (UNISA), which is currently being prepared for publication as a book. He translated works of Imam al-Ghazali, and summarised parts of the Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihyaʾ ʿUlum al-Din), most notably in the Travelling Light series, together with Shaykhs ʿAbdal Hakim Murad and Yahya Rhodus.

Some of his previous positions included being the head of the Muslim Judicial Council’s Fatwa Committee (which often led to him being described as the ‘Mufti of Cape Town’), lecturer in fiqh at the Islamic College of Southern Africa (ICOSA), and lecturer in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He was a member of the Stanlib Shariʿa Board, chief arbitrator (Hakim) of the Crescent Observer’s Society, and was listed consecutively in the Muslim500 from 2009 to 2020. He was also appointed Dean of the Madina Institute in South Africa, a recognised institution of higher learning in South Africa and part of the world Madina Institute seminaries led by Shaykh Dr Muhammad Ninowy. Shaykh Seraj was also appointed as professor at the International Peace University of South Africa, holding the Maqasid Chair for Graduate Studies.

Apart from fiqh and usul al-fiqh, some of Shaykh Seraj’s primary interests are in Sufism, Islamic civilisation studies, interfaith matters, gender studies, socio-political issues and related ideas of pluralism and identity. He lectured and presented papers in many countries, sharing platforms with his contemporaries. Shaykh Seraj taught a variety of Islamic-related subjects at Azzawia Institute in Cape Town, where he was its resident Shaykh, together with his brother Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks. His classes showed an encyclopaedic knowledge that was rooted in the tradition, while completely conversant with the modern age.

But beyond his classes, he was a pastoral figure to many – a community made of thousands – whom he gave himself completely to, in service of the religion, and counselling them as a khidma (service), with mahabba (love), in accordance with the Prophetic model. Many urged him to restrain himself in this way, fearing for his health, which suffered a great deal in his final years as a result – but he saw it as his duty.

The Shaykh was an international figure, a teacher to thousands, and an adviser to multitudes. Many today ask the question as to why ‘ulama truly matter, seeing as it seems so many of them can be compromised by different forces in pursuit of injustice, rigidness and petty partisanship. Such a question will not be asked by those who knew Shaykh Seraj, for in him they saw a concern for spirituality, not paltry political gain, and a commitment to justice and wisdom, not oppression or slogans. In him, many saw, and will continue to see hope for an Islamic commitment to scholarship that seeks to make the world a better place, rising to the challenge of maintaining their values of mercy and compassion, and exiting the world in dignity.

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#Society

The Problem With “When They Go Low, We Go High” In An Anti-Black Society

In 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama’s quote, ‘When they go low, we go high’, was first invoked in response to growing anti-black and racist sentiments hurled by the current president and his supporters. Like many others, I believed it was stirring and motivational, yet never felt right in my heart, let alone mind. Going high, but what was the starting point? How are we defining the actions of the ‘they’ or ‘them’? What is the breaking point, when engagement with the ‘they’ becomes problematic and leads to your destruction? Are there rules to this engagement? What game are we playing? Who gets to be the judge or referee? So, the quote and the sentiment never really set right in my heart and led to more questions than answers.

The first assumption of the quote, ‘they’  have a moral compass and actively engaging you in this manner, placing you on the same level. The reality, whiteness in America seeks to maintain its power and control. White slaveholders and the system of hate they used to justify those they enslaved, built a model of power and control, which is the foundation of our current economy and societal structure. This institutionalized whiteness is so ingrained in our culture we are blind to its implications and oblivious to how we each play a role in maintaining this system. Ignorance of the historical development of this country and the narrative of being ‘American’ allows for ‘them’ to maintain their control and a passive acceptance of ‘their’ control and power.

The ‘they’ is often not embodied in a singular person or one group, but a collective body of thoughts and behavior; perpetuating fundamental beliefs or maintaining a perceived status quo. It is individual, institutional, and structural. While social media is full of single racially- charged incidents, when viewed as a whole, they are rooted in long-held beliefs and perceptions of white superiority and disdain for Black presence in their daily lives. Guilt, maybe. Fear. Many are not even aware of how and why they ‘hate’ Black people they simply, do. Here is where we will begin, if you cannot soundly identify or recognize why you hold a particular belief or idea, your actions can never firmly centered in a morally or ethically position. Many of the recent encounters reveal whiteness is predicated on lies; and the belief that white words are superior to truth. The interaction between a San Francisco couple, confronting a Black Man. provides a case study in how we are often engaged and the surveillance of our presence. Threats to call the police, with false information was of no significance to them in their minds, they were right and justified. This incident and the modern-day lynchings of Black persons, allows us to understand ‘they’ or morally bankrupt and will do whatever is necessary to maintain their perceived control.

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A quote by Matshona Dhilwayo bridges the gap between the contradictions in my heart and the understanding my mind seeks,

“It is possible to turn the other cheek when one has stopped counting.”

For generations, Black Americans have taken the ‘higher’ road in response to prejudice and discrimination. At times I believe, we have stopped counting because we knew few changes were coming or justice. During the pinnacle of the civil rights movement during the 60’s the emergence of Malcolm X, challenged the idea of ‘turning the cheek’ when faced with violent acts perpetrated upon Blacks by Whites. The slaps, the senseless murders of Black people on the streets, you count and recognize your enemy for who and what they represent.

In confronting our enemy, we must meet them on their home field of engagement. Millions have taken to the streets across the globe, no longer willing to accept the status quo and suffer needlessly at the hands of those who seek to negate our very existence. As a country, we must understand, this was NEVER a fair fight, on an equal field of battle, or with ample weapons. Nothing about the ‘American’ way of life ever guaranteed any of us a fair shot or equality.

You can not get justice from a system founded by people who in the 1700s published books on how to address the ‘negro problem’. Even Thomas Jefferson knew this day was coming, but in the end, he still held firmly to the belief we were an inferior race who could be easily controlled and manipulated.

Did the enemy play fair when Dr. King was trying to catch a moment of calm at the Lorraine Hotel? Was the enemy morally centered when Malcolm stood in the Audubon Auditorium and was assassinated in front of his family? Did they think twice as Medger Evers pulled into his driveway to spend the evening with his wife and family? When Fred Hampton lay in bed beside his wife was there a second thought?

The idea is not to meet your enemy on some lofty plateau of moral superiority, because they have none; their superiority is based on an ideology that doesn’t even recognize you as their equal. The real lesson, learn from your enemy- their tactics, fighting styles, and methods of engagement. Fight them not with their tools, but your own.

As people of faith, we tend to view those around us, as divine creations of The One; forgetting it was one of those divine creations, who we call the Shaytan. Yes, we accept others for who they are and respect all of humanity. The balance then becomes in recognizing just as the Quran teaches, not everyone will be called to faith or will lead peaceful harmonious lives. This is where we find ourselves, after almost five hundred years of oppression and abuse across the world, here in America, there may not be any redemptive hope for our enemy or the system they created. This does not mean, we simply acquiesce to their control and power, it means we engage them on a level playing field and defeat them using their own rules and weapons.

Knowing your enemy does not mean you become them; nor does it eliminate Divine intervention during periods of unrest. Knowing your enemy, is simply that you fully embrace the reality that they are your enemy and act accordingly. While we hold firm to our faith and the knowledge that He is the Best of Planners, we cannot enter into the enemy’s seat of power believing our mere presence and fervent prayers will somehow miraculously and instantly change their heart. That is not our calling or role, and not our divine purpose. Imams, scholars, and activists engaged in the work of justice and equality, are not divinely elevated to personas and are not representatives of our Lord, but mere offering religious insight and guidance. They hold space, offering insight, and protection.

Never, in the history of this country, have those in power and control ever fully recognized, accepted, or atoned for the entrapment, kidnapping, and enslavement of Africans. Instead, they have violently and systematically created a country of denial and continued oppression. The argument is that things have improved from the ’60s.  My response, I am still not free of the anxiety of having my children taken from this world, simply because they are Black.

We are not allowed to move about this world without having to do twice as much; be ten times better; while still being thought of as less than.

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#Islam

Identity Scholarship: Ideological Assabiya And Double Standards

The Prophet helped the Arabs overcome their asabiya (tribalism) and enter a new defining bond of Islam. The criterion for right and wrong was no longer clan membership, but rooted in the religion of Islam. Muslims were instructed to defend the truth, command good, and forbid evil regardless of tribal affiliation. Asabiya does not just relate to kin-based tribes.  One of the resurging traces of jahilya affecting our discourse is ideological tribalism. In ideological tribalism, we hold double standards between our tribe and other tribes, and overlook fallacies in our group that we would not for other groups. Just as we protect an idea that represents our identity, when a personality reflects our group identity, there is a personal reason to defend the personality. It then becomes instinctual then to double-down in discussions even when wrong to show group strength, which at this point is a survival mechanism and not a true dialectic. Abandoning a quest for truth and succumbing to an in-group vs. out-group dichotomy leaves us to defend falsehood and dislike truth. Refusing to accept truth is one way the Prophet described arrogance. 

Group belonging

One of the main drivers of identity scholarship is group belonging. When we focus on defending our group rather than principles which extend beyond group delineations we prove false our claims of wanting the truth.  The burden of moral responsibility is not offset by finding someone to follow [1]. Charismatic leaders have an ability to tap into latent desires of individuals and awaken in them the desire to be part of something greater than themselves. Their own identities are often validated by following the charismatic figure, and they then work hard to preserve the group as they would to preserve their own selves.

According to Ann Ruth Willner, charismatic authority “derives from the capacity of a particular person to arouse and maintain belief in himself or herself as the source of legitimacy. Willner says that the charismatic leadership relationship has four characteristics:

  1. The leader is perceived by the followers as somehow superhuman.
  2. The followers blindly believe the leader’s statements.
  3. The followers unconditionally comply with the leader’s directives for action.
  4. The followers give the leader unqualified emotional commitment.
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Charismatic leadership satisfies our desire to be part of something bigger, and paradoxically, to hand all power over to someone else can make us feel more powerful because we think that person is the best version of ourselves. We feel that we have gained ‘agency by proxy.’ We have also dumped all responsibility for decisions onto the leader- what Erich Fromm, the scholar of Nazism, called an ‘escape from freedom.’ When we are in a charismatic leadership relationship, our sense of self-worth attaches attached to the identity of the leader, so that we take personally any criticism of that leader, and have as much difficulty admitting flaws or errors on the leader’s parts as we do on our own. Because we see the leader as us, and we see us as good, we simply can’t believe that he or she might do bad things” (59) [2].

Charismatic leadership is emotional and works on desires. This type of leadership has no relation to truth. It exists and persists due to feelings, hence contradictions, double-standards, and outright hypocrisy aren’t issues for those in the relationship. Even when the leader confidently behaves irresponsibly, followers do not think less of him. What is inconsistent and irresponsible for an out-group observer is charming to members of the in-group.

As Miller points out: 

Followers don’t expect charismatic leaders to be responsible for what they say, nor to behave responsibly; their irresponsible behavior is part of their power. Their use of hyperbole and tendency to be unfiltered in speech are taken to signify their passionate commitment to the in-group (60).

Such loyalty is not specific for charismatic leaders, The Minimal Group Paradigm shows that we have more empathy for our in-group even if that in-group is arbitrarily assigned, and we will act biased in their favor against an arbitrarily assigned out-group. This is a tendency against which we must actively fight to maintain clarity in thinking and fair standards in discussions. When group loyalty is prized there is a fear of opposing the group, which obliterates any chance of scholarly discourse. Questioning a position becomes akin to questioning authority and leaves the questioner ostracized and out-casted. When the out-group is pejoratively labeled, there is an additional fear of thinking like or ending up in that group. 

Identity scholarship

Rather than looking at the argument constructed and judging whether or not it is sound, identity scholarship approves or dismisses arguments based on the person making them. Arguments are then validated by personalities and not standards of scholarship.  This is a dangerous shift from reasoning and evidence to personalities. 

Identity scholarship leverages the need to belong and centers the personality over the argument. However, focusing on the strength of arguments and not the personality is especially important given that the term ‘scholar’ or ‘shaykh’ is applied to vocationally trained Muslims, seminal graduates, preachers, or to those who display a scholarly caliber in Islam alike. This is a sufficient crisis. The term is heavily equivocated, and should never serve to stand in place of standards of scholarship in discourse. 

Ambiguity in the term ‘scholar’ or ‘shaykh’ is exploited by groups to strengthen their influence. Not always pernicious, this is the natural progression of proselytizing via group identity. An in-group who will dismiss dissenting voices for not having studied long enough, not obtaining ijazas, will promote voices of similar or less educated Muslims when those voices are in their ‘in-group.’ Titles like ‘ustadh’ and ‘ustadha’ are quickly conferred upon those who are volunteers or proponents of the ‘in-group’ even with minimal study. Advocating for the correct paradigm is rewarded more than a knowledge based approach to issues. Giving titles to those with social capital in your in-group is also an effective way for brand expansion. For example, loosely affiliated students with avenues into the growing Muslim mental health field are often referred to as ‘ustadha.’  Also, traditionalists will often promote in-group religious figures engaging in no-risk activism like condemning already popularly condemned figures as exemplary ‘scholars and activists’ who should be followed by other activists.  

If a person has been doing this long enough they become ‘shaykh,’ and then eventually a ‘senior scholar’ with assumed wisdom and spiritual insight, worthy of deference. I am well acquainted with the unfortunate irony in traditional circles where those who push a manhaj of studying at the feet of scholars have by and large not done so beyond attending general lectures by visiting scholars.  Many do not even know Arabic, but their zeal and tenure of feel good lectures in a community primarily interested in nasheeds and tea coupled with their promoting the right figures secure for them a scholarly status by generations who venerate the theory of studying at the feet of scholars. 

Thus authority and titles are conferred by virtue of in-group allegiance. 

Slip into demagoguery

When we accept an in-group and out-group dichotomy and don’t argue fairly, we lay the foundation for demagogic discourse. As Patricia Mill-Roberts writes “If people decide to see things as a zero-sum game- the more they succeed, the more we lose, and we should rage about any call made against us, and cheer any call made against them- then democracy loses” (13). The best way to avoid this is by maintaining fair discussions and letting go of double standards. Arguments appealing to in-group or out-group positions rather than being based in fact should not be accepted regardless of which group they are coming from. Several tactics used in these types of arguments are described below. 

Creating a strawman

Falsely representing the out-group is a common tactic in demagogic discourse. One example is portraying out-group critics as only critics. The critic is frozen in time as someone who has accomplished nothing, helped no one, and as only one who sees the faults in others. The in-group then goes on to list what they have accomplished -‘albeit with some faults’- to not seem as braggarts, but insists that those faults are magnified by the arm-chair critics. 

Another example is labeling Muslims more concerned with academic preservation and development as Muslims in ivory towers. This suggests knowledge is only relevant if immediately actionable and discounts the role of theoretical knowledge in both present and future action as well as an intrinsic end.  

Even when it comes to the epitome of practical action, Allah tells the Muslims to not all go out in battle, but to have groups remain behind to study.

Condescending discrediting

One way demagoguery characterizes the out-group is by a “dithering, wavering, impaired masculinity, and weakness…”(66).  Just as Rudy Giuliani dismissed those protesting Trump’s 2016 win as “professional protestors” with nothing else to do in life, so do we dismiss dissenting voices. 

Terms like ‘keyboard warrior’ should be dropped from the vernacular of anyone who uses the internet for Islamic education. If the internet is good enough for theatrical Ramadan reminders and choreographed Islamic reflections, it should also be good enough for dissent and valid critiques.[3] We have to embrace the fact that the internet is not a pretend medium; social media posts are used in newsfeeds, are reacted to on the mimbar, and even prompt live events. If we dismiss valid criticisms made online as the act of ‘keyboard warriors’ we should also call those giving dawah online ‘studio daa’is.’  

Discrediting due to inexperience

Experience is an important element in answering questions and dealing with different scenarios, and, should rightly be considered when one is looking for a teacher, etc. However, frequently, the standards for what constitutes experience are used inconsistently. The same individuals who refer to young teachers as ‘shaykh’ or ‘mufti’ while in their in-group, dismiss ‘shaykhs’ and ‘muftis’ in the out-group of similar age and experience, arguing that a person can’t be a ‘real’ mufti because studying 7 years doesn’t make anyone a scholar. Graduating from a seminary or Islamic university will be the standard for members of an in-group to be called scholars, but the out-group will be ‘immature graduates’ who have not learned wisdom.  Wisdom itself will be defined as the avoidance of actions which challenge the in-group. Likewise an activist saying the right thing and echoing in-group talking points will be called ‘ustadh,’ but if from the ‘out-group’ dismissed as a Godless- activist’ that just hates hierarchy. 

Victimization and Victimology

Demagoguery thrives on the in-group being victimized by the out-group. It is common for religious figures to dismiss valid criticism as nothing but hate, envy, or ignorance [4]. When criticized by activists, it is common to label them as ‘anti-clerical’ activists who only have an issue with Islamic leaders because they are neo-Marxists. 

‘Neo-Marxist’ is used as a catch-all term to discredit those who disagree with the positions of some religious leaders to insinuate the disagreements are rooted in hate for hierarchy or authority thus being illegitimate. Even conservative and practicing Muslims are labeled as ‘leftists’ and ‘Godless activists’ for simple critiques. In Sufi groups, disagreeing with leadership is often said to be the result of being spiritually veiled, or the work of ‘dark forces’ and ‘shayateen’ dividing us. If we can agree that black-magic and evil-eye are real but should not be the first culprit in a failing marriage, let’s also look for practical failures when religious organizations break down before we start blaming the ‘shayateen.’  

On one hand the in-group claims they are victims, on the other they blame the out-group for having a victim mentality.  This may seem like an obvious contradiction, but as Miller explains,  

If condemnation of out-group behavior is performed by a very likable persona, then onlookers are likely to conclude that the rhetor would never engage in the behavior she or he is condemning. This maneuver is especially effective with people who believe that you can know what someone believes by listening to what values he or she claims to espouse, and with people who think you can predict behavior by listening to values talk (who believe that ‘good people- that is, people who say the right things- don’t do ‘bad’ things) (56) 

Another tactic is using terms like ‘victomology’ to belittle legitimate grievances of being wronged and falsely representing those grievances as an attitude of being a victim in life.

Being oppressed (mazlum) does not require living a tough life, being a victim in life, or being part of an oppressed group. We are told by the Prophet that delaying a payment owed while being capable of paying is oppression (Muslim). When our God given rights are transgressed upon, we are mazlum in that situation. It is not uncommon however to see Muslims want to claim their rights and express they have been wronged to be dismissed as those who love to be victims. Ironically, this is even done by organizations that describe themselves with the leftist concept of ‘safe spaces.’  

Disregarding Nuance

“Demagoguery is comfortable because it says the world is very simple, and made up of good people (us) and bad people (them)” (24). 

We must understand that if someone does not see an issue as black or white, it’s not because they are obviously corrupt, willfully ignorant, or stupid.  The word nuance itself triggers cynicism and is treated as an excuse to employ mental gymnastics to deny what is ‘obvious.’  The fact of the matter is when it comes to khilafi issues there is generally a vast scope of acceptable actions, and when it comes personal ijtihaadi matters for policy there is often no clear-cut best answer. Thus in such matters the objective is to come to a best resolution or course of action. In short, we should all take appropriate measures in our decisions to ensure the benefit outweighs the harm. Certain positions are cautioned against due to the likelihood of harm to one’s religion, but that likelihood may not serve as evidence that one has harmed his religion. As the great scholar Muhammad Awama relates in Ma’laam Irshadiya, the way of the scholars is to leave people in what they are following as long as it is correct and has a valid legal perspective [5]

Scholarly discourse

Advice from recognized experts in a field carries weight, but it should not be conflated with a scholarly argument. A common mistake is to confer authority upon an opinion outside the area of one’s authority. Scholarly works must prove themselves to be scholarly as stand-alone works. Even if a great scholar has published many scholarly works, his advice should be taken as advice. For example, Imam al-Ghazali was a great scholar, but Dear Beloved Son is not a scholarly work.  We have a malfoozaat (wisdom-sharing) tradition that is precious, but we must know where to place it in the hierarchy of Islamic knowledge. 

Islamic scholarly discourse should be evidence based, demonstrative of legal proficiency, and cater to Islamic concerns. Those engaging should share the evidence for what they say, the sources of the rulings they share, the difference between the reason for a ruling and the wisdom of a ruling [6], understand contextual fatwas,[7] and understand which rulings are based on urf and which rulings are intrinsic obligations or prohibitions. These are just some elements of Islamic scholarly discourse, and it cannot exist alongside identity scholarship. 

There should be private forums with prerequisites where scholarly discourse can take place. When these discussions move outside of their proper place other issues such as discussing weak or aberrant (shadh) fiqh opinions arise, which to an undiscriminating audience all will seem co-valid on the spectrum of differing opinions in sharia. Promoting aberrant positions caters to our cultural preferences of thinking outside the box and carries the façade of an intellectual approach to Islam. In Maharam al-Lisaan (Prohibitions of the Tongue) Muhammad Mawlud lists both mentioning the conflict between the Sahabah, and mentioning aberrant opinions as prohibitions.  This is not due to the utterance being sinful, but rather to the misconceptions it can lead to for the average Muslim if not properly addressed.  

There may be a need to dismiss open innovators and those spreading misguidance, because there is no end to the possibilities of innovation and it obfuscates what should be self-evident, and can be very difficult for even scholars to refute in ways that resonate with those affected by innovation. The double standard as previously mentioned is when lack of formal credentials is only a problem for out-groups. 

How to have productive discourse

Islamic historical discourse has its share of polemics. There are commentaries, fatwas and treatises which insult valid ijtihad and even refer to the entirety of a madhab with epithets. Some scholars were harsh and had a penchant for polemics. Transgressions into mockery and slander were not condoned, and belligerent attitudes were something scholars sought to check with reminders of adab al-ikhtilaf (the etiquettes of disagreement). While the previously mentioned certainly existed and such an approach may serve to strengthen positions of the in-group to the in-group, it does not make for productive dialogue with the out-group.

Outside of scholarly discourse, when we debate policy and Islamic positions, we need to have sincere, fact based arguments with the goal of arriving at truth. Our ability to accept truth no matter who says it shows we have transcended in-group vs. out-group tribalism and have entered the realm of sincere discourse.  Overcoming in-group tribalism and following the truth, rather than blindly following our ‘fathers’ is a central message in the Quran. 

And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?  2:170 

Arguments on points should never be personal. We should train ourselves to evaluate arguments and understand that people we like can make mistakes, and people we dislike and generally disagree with may be right on certain matters. 

Don’t take cheap shots if you disagree with someone, such as pointing out a typo to insinuate incompetence. 

It’s important to leave double-standards, and to point them out when someone is employing them.  When one side is unfair or uses double standards, it encourages the opposition to act in kind, and the discussion devolves into a fight. When disagreeing with someone, never insult that person.  When a personality is attacked, the response will be defending the personality, and the entire discussion is derailed. 

Sharing a post, or article should not be seen as endorsing an individual or a post. Sometimes it’s a means of opening a discussion, other times to share beneficial points even if the entirety of what is shared is not beneficial. Furthermore, endorsing an individual in one area is not a blanket endorsement, and should never be taken as such.  The Hanafi tradition was able to benefit from legal fatwas while not accepting theology of Mu’tazilite scholars. Likewise, many of our best tafseers are from Mu’tazilite scholars. The widely studied and highly regarded Tafseer al-Baydawi is basically a reworked Mu’tazilite tafseer without the Mu’tazilite aqidah. Scholars have been able to ‘take the good and leave the harm.’ 

“I don’t think you could search America, sir, and find two men who agree on everything.” – Malcolm X

We need to uplift our intellectual level and drop disclaimers like “I don’t agree with everything in this article” or “I don’t agree with everything he said.”  It is only worth stating when you do agree with everything someone says or does.  The common disclaimers should be taken as givens and we shouldn’t capitulate to a cultural push of walking on egg-shells so no one accuses us of supporting the wrong person or idea. 

It is critical we operate under the assumption that sharing a panel with or working with an individual is not an endorsement of that individual. Likewise, working with an organization is not an endorsement of that organization. Such associations are attacked as potentially confusing to the average Muslim, but we must work towards establishing that such actions are not support. 

Here we see an ambivalent conceptualization of the ‘average Muslim’ as someone who both deserves transparency from religious scholars for their actions as well as one who is easily confused or misled by the actions of Muslim scholars. If we can accept both propositions, that a scholar’s actions are not proof, and that working with someone and sharing posts and platforms do not equate support for every particular view or stance of a person, we may set the foundation for being issue focused rather than personality focused. 

In conclusion, it is important we all hold ourselves to high standards of discourse and not support behavior or fallacies from our in-group that we would deride from an out-group. The groups themselves are inevitable and not a problem, but we have to work to overcome the natural ideological tribalism that accompanies group membership.  If we personally transcend in-group bias and reflect it in our discourse, we can overcome the pettiness and hypocrisy that stifles productive discussions. 

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