How easy it is to find fault with the other. It is always our opponents that have entered the proverbial lizard hole, while we ourselves cling firm to authentic faith. Our orthodoxy is palpably correct, while the beliefs of our foes are obviously suspect. Thus do we wield in our armoury words famously attributed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, with which we trounce our opponents:
“You will surely follow the path trodden by those before you, step-by-step and inch-by-inch, so much so that if they went down into a lizard hole, you would follow them too.”
The report goes on to clarify that those who walked the path before them were the Jews and Christians, but the hadith is nowadays employed for any opposing political ideology or cultural construct, be it liberalism, feminism, socialism, capitalism, atheism or merely being a hipster. Thus so-called progressive Muslims — a weird sleight — have dived head-first down a lizard hole, followed closely behind by modernists, rationalists, the wrong kind of traditionalist and the apparently intellectually colonised. In short, everyone but our own.
Let us assume that the Prophet, peace be upon him, did indeed utter these words. The question that springs to my mind is why these sentiments would only become pertinent 1400 years after they were originally spoken, or more charitably, over the past two hundred years during the Muslim world’s traumatic encounter with European imperialism. What is it that makes us defend 1200 years of tradition as the bulkhead against the sudden westernisation of faith — employing that convenient shorthand for the Judeo-Christian realm — when our favourite hadith makes no such claim.
Might it not be better to establish what it was that the Jews and Christians believed and practiced, particularly at that time, in order to discern in what way we might follow in their footsteps? And might it not be prudent to study the stories of those who passed before us as enumerated by the Qur’an, particularly as it references the People of the Book? Might it be there that we discover in what way we may have followed in the footsteps of those before us?
Might we, for example, ponder on the story of Moses, peace be upon him? That a people, preferred by God over all mankind, took to worshipping a calf during the brief absence of their Prophet, despite the miracles they had witnessed and having only recently been saved from the oppression of Pharaoh? That despite being provided with manna and quails to eat, some of them remained ungrateful, bent on committing evil? How, we might ask, did we fare in the absence of our Prophet, by comparison? What does the bitter conflict that occurred in the immediate period after his death teach us, if anything at all?
The Book, if we allow ourselves to read it, explicitly tells of the missteps of the people before us. The people of Medina, for example, were warned not to be like those who abused Moses after they at first believed. Elsewhere, we read of the scholars and monks amongst the People of the Book taken as lords besides God, who wished to extinguish His light with their mouths:
“O you who have believed, indeed many of the scholars and the monks devour the wealth of people unjustly and avert them from the way of God. And those who hoard gold and silver and spend it not in the way of God — give them tidings of a painful punishment.” — Qur’an 9:34
Might these be the lesson we are expected to call to mind whenever the spectre of constrictive lizard holes are invoked in our gatherings? Might it be warnings such as these:
“And let there be from you a nation inviting to good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, and those will be the successful. And do not be like the ones who became divided and differed after the clear proofs had come to them. And those will have a great punishment.” — Qur’an 3:104-105
Might we ponder on the story of the cow, in which the people of Moses demanded ever finer details about an animal they were asked to sacrifice for their Lord? Might we reflect on our own habit of eliciting minutiae from clear commandments, until they become almost too difficult to practice, their essence completely obliterated? Might we wonder whether religion is in fact far simpler than we have made it?
“And strive for God with the striving due to Him. He has chosen you and has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty. It is the religion of your father, Abraham. God named you Muslims before and in this revelation that the Messenger may be a witness over you and you may be witnesses over the people. So establish prayer and give zakah and hold fast to God. He is your protector; and excellent is the protector, and excellent is the helper.” — Qur’an 22:78
Might we reflect on the response of all the Prophets throughout Surah Nuh, and indeed throughout the Qur’an as a whole: “No reward do I ask of you for it: my reward is only from the Lord of the worlds.” And might we then contemplate Religion Inc. witnessed all around us, in which guidance is perpetually sold to the highest bidder, burdening people with debt for no reason?
Might we reflect on these lessons, and a multitude of other stories concerning the people of old, who we are apparently destined to follow, step-by-step and inch-by-inch? Might we ask ourselves whether that following began not only in recent times, as we are led to believe, but early on, even amongst those who believed and then disbelieved amongst the companions of the Prophet; even amongst those who followed in the first generations; even amongst the great empires and dynasties so celebrated by tradition?
Of course, the fact that it may have started early on does not preclude it from continuing until this day: why wouldn’t it? But even here, the question that springs to mind is why so-called traditionalists only ever apply it to those they believe to be compromised by liberalism, modernism or neo-imperialism, and not to those Muslims that adopt conservative Christian values? Why is that individuals who adopt facets of the new alt-right narrative, promoting evangelical Christian paradigms such as the Surrendered Wife and Alpha Male, happily exempt themselves from the charge?
The truth is, our environment — wherever we happen to find ourselves — influences how we think about the world and our place in it. Our presence here, in this age, might very well be a good thing, allowing us to reach better understandings of our history and tradition. It is simply not possible to cut ourselves off from our environment, however much we may try to convince ourselves otherwise: that we are somehow proto-Muslims, unaffected by the buffeting forces of history. Understanding the past it the key to our future.
Determining which steps of ours took us down the path trodden by those before us requires careful discernment. I certainly don’t have the answers: this question necessitates considered, unbiased research, which delves into history and tradition objectively. Can we attribute the actions of atheists to Jews and Christians? Can Jews and Christians be said to be the source of the dogma of anti-religious secularists? Do the words attributed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, refer to any action of a Jew or a Christian, or only to religious matters? Do they refer to any Jew or Christian, or only to rabbis, priests and monks?
All of these and more are the kinds of questions we should ask ourselves, whenever others try to browbeat us into retreat, fearful that our personal mindset or character is at fault. None of us can cut ourselves off from our environment — not even the apparently uncompromising proto-Muslim who considers himself rightly guided without a doubt. To think that we can, perhaps, might even be another lizard hole we hadn’t noticed. Are we a Chosen People, or does the Qur’an teach otherwise? And will we even allow ourselves to consider what the Book says for ourselves, or will we be like the people before us, relegating our understanding to our learned ones? Alas, once you start asking yourself these questions, such questions never cease.