Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On the History of Progressive Islam


Does Progressive Islam Need a Genealogy?

By Farish A. Noor ~ July 29th, 2009.
(Note: This is a summary of the paper I gave at the Conference on Progressive Islam and its Global Challenges organised by the Sharif Hidayatullah Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta over the weekend. – Farish)

History has the curious effect of rendering permanent, firm and stable things that are contingent and even radically so. More often than not the recourse to history is precisely a search for the sort of stability and certainty that many a political project needs, as if without the benefit of a long history behind it a new idea is rendered novel, contingent and possibly even dismissed as being out of place and out of time. But herein lies the irony of the situation: for in our search for origins and the false comfort of an immutable history, have we forgotten the fact that almost all the great ideas that have shaped the development of human civilisation were, at the point of their genesis, radically contingent and outside the frame of the ordinary as well? Its not for nothing that revolutionary ideas are historically revolutionary as well.
Which brings us of the past, present and future fate of this thing called ‘Progressive Islam’.

Progressive Islam is not a new school of thought or some fad that is a symptom of the post-modern times we live in. Progressive Muslims are not re-inventing Islam or re-writing the Quran and Hadith, anymore than progressive Christians, Hindus or Buddhists are reinventing Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism. What all these religious progressives have in common is the earnest wish to translate the meaning and ethical import of their respective faith and belief-systems into social and political realities that are keeping with the spirit of the times we live in, for fear of the fact that if the normative aspects of lived religiosity do not tally and concur with the ethical norms and the phenomenal discoveries of the modern age then religion will simply be reduced to a relic of the past and religiosity will be reduced to empty meaningless rituals.

Of course the development of progressive Islamic thought has a history to it, in as much as the development of progressive Christian thought can also look back to the past to seek assurances of dogmatic conformity and exemplary models to emulate. In the case of progressive Islam, progressive Muslims today look back to the models that were set by the likes of al-Ghazali, ibn Rushd, ibn Khaldun et al. It was ibn Khaldun who pioneered what would later come down to us as modern political sociology, in his landmark work the Muqadimmah. Ibn Khaldun’s emphasis on the role played by human reason and agency as the central motor to history was revolutionary at the time as it placed human beings at the centre of the phenomenal world, and relegated to the margin the effects of fate, chance and even divine intervention. It was Khaldun who insisted that the rise and fall of nations was due to human beings and their actions, rather than being fated or determined by metaphysical or supernatural forces.
Yet we also know that the works of men like Khaldun were never really rendered mainstream in Muslim intellectual culture and that Khaldun was later brought back to global prominence thanks to the works of non-Muslim European thinkers like Rosenthal instead. Likewise it was in Western Europe that Muslim rationalism flourished the most, where it served as one of the basis for the Western Enlightenment project and by doing so laid down some of the foundations of Modernity.

Thus for progressive Muslims today to claim that their efforts to liberate normative Muslim religiosity from the shackles of outdated tradition, patriarchy, neo-feudalism etc can be so easily traced back to a singular tradition of Muslim rationalism that is somehow meant to be linear and deterministic is a case of over-simplification at best. There are no historical reasons or evidence to prove that the road from al-Ghazali leads us directly and immediately to Muslim rationalism today. We may search the annals of the past to seek models of yore, but there have also been huge gaps between the past and the present when the tradition of Muslim rationalism was so weak as to appear almost dead and non-existent.

So what then are the uses of history and genealogy? If not to offer some solace in past models, what can history to for us today?
The answer to the question lies in part in what sort of history we are talking about and what we hope history will do for us. If ‘history’ is to be understood in the narrowest sense of being merely an accurate objective record of what happened where and why, then history is at best a record of data and dates, and little else. But if we were to attempt a different approach at reading history, one that is akin to the approach of Foucault where history is instead read as a history of power-relations, hierarchies and histories of silencing, marginalisation and foregrounding, then we may be getting somewhere.

For what we need to know more than ever is not whether there were rational progressive Muslim thinkers like al-Ghazali, ibn Rushd or ibn Khaldun, but rather how and why were their ideas deemed relevant and important at one stage and then dismissed, censured and erased at another. What kind of history we need is not merely a history of ideas but also a history of the institutions and opportunity structures that render some ideas palatable – or even vitally necessary – and other ideas repugnant at different stages of a society’s development. In short we need to ask who were the ones who rendered the tradition of Muslim rationalism redundant, dangerous and anathema to Islam, and why?
For this is the nature of the struggle that progressive Muslims (like their Christian, Hindu and Buddhist counterparts) are facing today: While progressive Muslim theologians, scholars and activists continue to try to break down the hegemony of outmoded forms and norms of thinking, they are being derided and condemned by their co-religionists as ‘enemies of the faith’ (and of course the secret agents of America, the global Zionist conspiracy, Western capitalism and other nasty things.) Yet as we have seen elsewhere and in other faith communities, the struggle to evolve and develop one’s outmoded forms of religious thinking can also bring about results as long as we understand that the struggle is a fundamentally political one. Apartheid in South Africa, for instance, was justified by conservative Christians on religious grounds, and it was challenged by progressive Christian activists who engaged with scripture but with the intention of challenging political realities at the same time.

Today Progressive Muslims need to do the same thing and realise that our struggle to liberate the public domain of Muslim society is a fundamentally political struggle that has to work with and also against institutionalised forms of power, control and hegemony. History may give us some models and examples of how this was attempted centuries ago by Muslims who were regarded as modern and progressive then, but history cannot win the struggle for us today.
Which brings me back to the question: Does progressive Islam need a history?
Well, in a sense all new ideas are at the outset ahistorical. At the moment of Islam’s genesis there was no history as there was no precedent. The day after the first Muslim was converted and the community came into being, Islam’s history was 24 hours old. Yet despite its newness Islam’s message was no less relevant for not having a past. As it is with Islam, so was it with all the faith systems that are built on revealed knowledge. All the major religious and belief systems of the world were likewise ahistorical at the outset, and their endurance, spread and survivability depended not upon history – for there was no determinism or teleology involved here – but rather thanks to the engagement with real structures of power, dominance and counter-hegemony.

Progressive Muslim intellectuals today should therefore be cautious about falling back on history as if history immediately affords an idea with a certain epistemic worth that it might otherwise not possess. For a start, even the most reactionary and conservative Muslim or Christian would also fall back on history for some sense of temporal grounding, and again the case of the use and abuse of Christian dogma as a justification for Apartheid comes to mind. Just because someone quotes historical facts to you does not mean that she or he is immediately correct: in effect the person might just have a good – albeit selective – memory!

The second related worry about relying too much on history would be that if history is going to be the bulwark for every transformative project of social liberation and advancement, then there can be no real radical, revolutionary changes to any society for every new development will immediately be subsumed under the register of historical continuity and sameness. Yet we forget that for religion to have its radical, transformative and liberating potential it also needs to retain its radical distance from social norms and conventions that are outdated and ossified. Progressive Islam needs to have teeth, and be able to bite off the redundant and oppressive aspects of normative Muslim life that have become so profoundly unjust that they no longer concur with the prevailing mood and ethics of our times. But no progressive tradition can have this transformative potential if it immediately situates itself in the comfort zone of historical continuity and sameness.

Sometimes, it pays to be ahead of time or even out of time. And that was certainly the case with all the Prophets of the past.