Down the rabbit hole

The triumphant traditionalists demand that we wipe our memory clean, and forget the rebellion they enjoined at the turn of the decade, when answers were apparently easy and divine right on their side.

And now those same short-sighted scholars, who could not anticipate the anarchy that would unfold, tell us that they are the answer to all this madness. That they alone can deliver us from this nightmare, with their grand appeals to traditional Sunni Islam, which gave the world 1400 years of peace and security.

It is as if they dwell in cloud cuckoo land, oblivious to the impact of their own words on the world we live in, and yet still their disciples hang on their every word, celebrating their impenetrable insight and their indisputable appeals to truth. And the rest of us: we are to nod our heads unflinchingly, to sigh with relief, to celebrate our glorious inheritance, so perfect and fair and true, in the face of this momentary aberration in the space-time continuum.

So we are told with almost convincing certainty that Muslim societies have never faced a challenge as great as this, neither from the ravages of colonialism nor the forays of Umayyad rule, nor from the devastation wrought by the Mongol Empire or the plunder of the Crusades — and never have we witnessed the rise of such a heresy before, so profound and alien and unworthy of respect as the scourge of ISIS and its ideology.

Of course, here collective, communal amnesia is an absolute necessity. Ignorance is not just recommended, but a precondition for all that follows. You shall not ask about the witch-hunts of old, when Mutazila scholars were declared heretics, or of physical armed conflict between followers of the different schools, or of scholarly rulings in ancient tomes which stick out like a sore thumb. No, you shall numb all such questions, and turn away from them, and push them away, and deposit them in the dustbin of your mind, to be forgotten, ignored, erased — and instead you shall nod your head, and applaud the speaker for his irrefutable claims and wise words.

So go on: applaud. Forget about everything the scholars told you half a decade ago, with their call to arms against the cruel dictator, when the rebellion was supposed to be the harbinger of the promised one — a short-lived, temporary struggle that would usher in a new epoch of peace and justice. Obliterate from your minds their once-wise counsel, which accidentally opened doors that should forever have remained firmly closed. Overlook all that, and lend your ear once more!

Turn not to experts and authorities specialising in security, intelligence and education, or psychology and defence. Turn instead to venerable ulema: they alone can save these easily-brainwashed young minds. Only these noble sages can defeat the poisonous ideology of hate. It is for the ulema to decide how to defeat this ideology. And the panacea is clear: the revival of mainstream Sunni Islam is the miracle elixir, to be consumed like medicine, dispensed by eminent physicians of pure mind and erudite learning.

So let’s be Alice once more. Just because we found ourselves out of our depth and unable to unlock the doors before us when we sipped from the last bottle labelled ‘Drink Me’, it does not mean we should turn away from a piece of cake that begs us, ‘Eat me’. You never know what doors may open, if only you take your chance.

So listen to the wise one once more. Take heed of his remedy for all of our ills. It is the traditionalism of the four schools, though obviously not the parts of the schools which call us to replicate the behaviour of the ideologues we so condemn. It is the traditionalism of the state guided by the ulema, though obviously not the ulema who sanctioned the actions brought to life by the ideologues we condemn. It is that traditionalism of old, which has room for everyone to express his opinion in the most respectful way, so long as he is not a heretic or an apostate, or lay person. In short, it is the traditionalism of our imagination, which is everything our opposite is not.

So join us now, and come with us down our rabbit hole.

On the commoditisation of Ramadan

I’m not sure how I feel about the commoditisation of Ramadan by the charity sector. On the one hand, Ramadan is a month of mercy and giving, when charitable deeds are blessed and multiplied. On the other hand, each year my unease grows in the face of the apparent exploitation of religion and religious sentiment for material gains across the board. It’s an odd quandary.

Those who mock

Interestingly, despite their mockery of religion, these national secularists are in fact following a religion all of their own, with its own set of sacred symbols, mythology, taboos, holy institutions and high priests. Spend any amount of time with them and you will find them as rabid and zealous as any fundamentalist, defending their saints and symbols with a passion. Sadly introspection is not highly prized here.

Grand titles

I used to be frustrated by a teacher’s understatement of his extensive studies with many a scholar over many years in many lands, and his refusal of honorific titles. But now I am amazed by the grand titles the new generation of teachers assign themselves on their carefully curated social media pages, with all their profound posts accidentally boasting of their knowledge, years of study, great teachers and learning. I think I now understand the humility of that self-effacing teacher, with his tiny circle and concealed reputation.

Boy Bands

Another nationwide tour of celebrity scholars? I think I’ll give it a miss.

Too many at these events behave like off-balance teenage girls worshipping their boy-band pop idol. Except the adoring fans are mostly bearded men in thobes, and the boy-band, middle-aged male academics (yes, the organisers forgot to invite female scholars again).

Meanwhile, the scholars in our communities continue to attract an audience of one, because we really just crave edutainment and the opportunity to shower our idols in exaggerated praise, which must surely make them cringe and run for cover.

‘Oh yea of little faith,’ retort their disciples, reminding me to have respect for our scholars — the protectors of our religion.

And it’s true: I struggle with the personality worship in our community. We call these men giants, putting them on a pedestal we minions have little hope of nearing, and even when they speak of things about which they have no real knowledge, we stifle our own intellect, because clearly they know better, because we know nothing.

And so these bizarre spectacles unfold before us. Grown men grabbing hold of their hero’s coat tails. Groups of men forming constrictive circles around a man attempting to hold a private conversation, suffocating him. Selfies, autographs, copycat attar. Possession: claims of ownership, and exclusive intellectual rights. The weirdness is unending.

Surely you can respect your teacher and their knowledge without behaving like an infatuated teenager with a crush. Surely we can build balanced relationships with our teachers without the melodramatic adulation which turns a circle into a circus.

And, just maybe, if we’re really in search of sacred knowledge, perhaps we could go and sit at the feet of that humble sage in our community, who everyone shuns because, well, they’re not a celebrity.

Or is the pull of your darling dearest beloved just too magnetic to ignore? Is he a giant too colossal to neglect? Is his piety so contagious that only a swift sharp fervid dose will see you through until the next nationwide tour? Is this why we take our scholars and monks as lords?1

Have respect: of course, absolutely, no problem. But recall that praise belongs to Allah. Make room for contemplation and introspection, and take a step back. Is the frenzy surrounding the superstar scholar really the way it was meant to be? Or are we called to something greater?

  1. Qur’an 9:31