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

Moral arguments

It is occasionally worth recalling that the concept of “terror bombing” was not dreamed up in a cave in Afghanistan, but by a celebrated British statesman, who legitimised the mass killing of civilians as a means to defeat the enemy (37,000 in Hamburg and 25,000 in Dresden).

Collective amnesia forces us to wash our hands of these unpalatable truths, but painful introspection is necessary if we are to understand our modern afflictions. Terrorism and the targeting of civilians is always odious, and we should be able to condemn it in all its forms, not excuse and venerate some practitioners simply because they are or were on our side.

The moral argument does not work like that.

Gold leaf

Years ago, when I had just become Muslim, I was invited by a friend to spend an evening smoking fruit-flavoured tobacco from a shisha pipe.

When I declined, suggesting that it was not a good way for a Muslim to spend his time, my companion responded that we would adopt my puritanical stance when the caliphate was restored.

The logic seemed to be that in the absence of a Muslim ruler, none of us had any hope of jettisoning our bad habits or addictions.

Fast forward to today, and it seems that little has changed. All around me, people are campaigning for the return of those great “Islamic” empires of the past.

But ask the question, “Are we establishing Islam in our homes?” at your peril. Apparently we need to establish Muslim rule, before we can possibly hope to establish prayer in our homes.

I wonder what glory has to do with the simple calls of faith. Quranic verses embossed in gold leaf on magnificent buildings will never be a substitute for verses inscribed on our hearts.

Witnesses

So once more our activists and scholars petition us, “Why are you silent? Why do you not speak out?”

And yes, it is true, we feel like renegades, as if indifferent to the suffering of afflicted innocents everywhere.

But the communal amnesia they demand of us won’t stick. We have been browbeaten by tragedy before, and driven by emotion to join the bold choruses demanding war.

And now the millions dead and nations in anarchic turmoil stand witness against us.

This fire

They demand that you speak up, say something, make your voice heard, as if everything is clearcut and obvious and true, and as though your voice would make a difference to the wronged, caught in the crossfire of conflict.

Perhaps the silent fear opening the door to another giant invasion from outside, sold as a humanitarian intervention like Iraq and Libya.

Perhaps the silent still recall how those moderate Western-backed rebels morphed into the fearsome ISIS before our very eyes, providing new incentives to bomb the oil fields of Syria just a year after parliament declined to bomb them because of Assad.

Doors will open anyway, and those who want war will get it, whether we witness for the wronged or not. And those that demand we speak up now will demand that we stay silent in the face of wrongs perpetuated by our allies and friends. No, now is the time to call for more war, claim our respected leaders, not a time to petition for peace.

And on and on it goes. Yet more innocents will be wronged, innocent lives destroyed, as the fire spreads, rages out of control and ravages all in its path. And in time we will watch as our unprincipled leaders change their minds, adopting whichever new stance best suits the moment, confounding their students and followers with the fog of confusion that characterises these anarchic times.

But for now: “Speak up!” they chant. “O you hypocrites, turncoats, renegades, men of weak faith, backsliders, heretics, heathens, traitors, defectors, fugitives and snakes: petition all the forces of earth to rain cruise missiles down on the enemy. Demand that they deploy the standing armies from Saudi and Kuwait to vanquish the evil enemy. Speak up, speak up! Join our mighty chorus, beating the drums of war!”

Browbeaten, we might capitulate. Who wants to be an outlaw amongst friends? We will join in the sorrowful rejoinders and mournful laments, withheld from the mass of the victims of equally calamitous crimes; may our invocations sanctify the poor few amongst the thousands dead. Without a doubt it is their right.

But tomorrow, I can tell you, those hallowed ones will change their tune. Those that demand you speak up now, will tomorrow be writing of evil plots, of false-flag operations, of media-collusion, of takfiri extremists who don’t represent us. The fog will suddenly have lifted for them. But as for you: you are still the hypocrite, the heretic and heathen. You are still the ignorant one, to be turned whichever way the shepherd chooses, at that particular moment, on that particular day.

We are but partisan pawns on the great chessboard. We have forgotten that we are called to witness to the truth — if we are able to — not to champion for our team come what may. And if we do not know, or cannot verify the news we receive, to stay silent. Yes, even if everyone around us demands that we speak up, take a stance, make a choice.

But in any case, this fire will rage on and only spread, because nobody is willing to pour on cooling waters to extinguish the ravaging flames. The presumed wise ones demand an incendiary response: only fools would call for peace. So let us be fools.

In defence of losers

I used to be extremely timid in company. These days I find myself accidentally challenging people when they start making sweeping generalisations and outlandish claims. I don’t mean to be contrary. But really, someone needs to be the dissenting voice, offering an alternative perspective. Even if everyone thinks that the dissenting one is an idiot as a result.

Of course traditional wisdom states that you sit in silence when the enlightened are speaking, nod your head and keep your thoughts to yourself. That’s good manners. Maybe I should just do that, as I used to.

But it’s hard when people start dissing your people — the geeks, misfits and socially awkward. Nope, somebody has to give them a voice.

So disrespect the losers — the introverts, the shy, the socially awkward, the quiet ones — in my company at your peril. It’s a trigger. We who sit behind our keyboards, typing, typing, expressing ourselves in the written word, because it’s the only way we know how: yes, in real life we are the nobodies, the insignificant, the fabled losers of our time. Insecure, perhaps. Or perhaps merely misunderstood.

Introverts may shun public spaces. We may descend into a gibbering wreck when confronted with conversation. We may lack the social skills of the movers and shakers of the world. But perhaps in our writing we find our voice. In our words in print, or in pixels momentarily brought alive on bright screens by the wizardry of technology, we too contribute to the world around us.

The same nafs that meets and greets people out in the world, types upon keyboards set before us. The challenges are the same. The extremes need not define the whole. Terrorism does not define activism, nor do trolls define the web. The same nafs must be tamed, in each sphere we find ourselves in, be it social media or the board room. The true seeker is a man of his time. He does not rebuild that distant romantic past, resorting to a monkish apathy to his own age: he lives in these times, negotiating the modes and means of the present.

Perhaps the keyboard of these times can be a tool of liberation for some. Perhaps a social lubricant for others. Perhaps we are not all just losers, who could never survive out in the real world. Perhaps we have jobs that require us to sit in silence for long periods of time, to concentrate and code, or write, or edit, or draw, or paint, or think. Perhaps we have managers who value us for the quality of our output, despite our wonky teeth, slouching backs and annoying nasal voices.

A technology-enabled world is not for everyone. Some detest it, and would run for the hills when offered a keyboard, mouse, or tablet. So run! But technology has always enabled me to do my best work. To work in remote and far flung places, but still submit my projects on time. To converse across oceans. To collaborate with people across nations. Technology is a tool, not the be all and end all.

You have to get up and go out. To walk in the hills. Stretch those legs. And you have to exercise your mind and morals: to decide whether to be truthful, whether to verify information before passing it on, whether to talk to certain people or not. Yes, we need a fiqh and adab for the web.

But for giving the losers, the introverts, the numb, the socially awkward and the quiet ones a voice, I’m grateful for these technologies the enlightened now deride. Some are fighters. Some are writers. Here’s to the losers!

Investigate

It’s heartening that there are people in modern times who dedicate their time to checking facts. Tracing claims to their source, mapping the path of the information as it spread worldwide. Investigating the contents of the claims. They are the modern inheritors of the sciences of isnad and matn.

But it is disheartening that they are rarely Muslim, and that in complete reverse, it is often Muslims who spread the unverified junk without a moment’s pause, purely because such claims confirm to their worldview or what they wish to believe.

This Quranic maxim is the last thing we want to hear:

O you who have believed, if an ungodly man comes to you with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful.