Dr Ebrahim Moosa

Professor of Islamic Studies, Keough School of Global Affairs,  University of Notre Dame

Co-director, Contending Modernities

Principal Investigator of Madrasa Discourses

This post is Part 5 of an online book panel on Modern Muslim Theology: Engaging God and the World with Faith and Imagination. This online dialogue is hosted by the Christian-Muslim Studies Network. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 may be found on the Christian-Muslim Studies Network blog.

Martin Nguyen challenges our understanding of tradition, and his chapter “Faith in the Tradition” resonated with me for several reasons. Firstly, a certain energy flows in the writing and clearly the topic is deeply etched to the author’s sensibilities. Secondly, the two figures that feature prominently were also my heroes: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111), a figure I have studied with reasonable care and Malcolm X, aka al-Hajj Malik al-Shabbaz (d. 1965), with whom I identified as a kid who grew up in apartheid South Africa, and I was proud to be bounded in faith with a man of such magnificent character.

‘How I wish more people took the Ghazali epigram Nguyen uses seriously.’

How I wish more people took the Ghazali epigram Nguyen uses seriously. It is drawn from the last lines of The Weighscale for Action where Ghazali reminds his readers that if his writing did not make them doubt in order to generate questions and make further inquiries independently of tradition, then much was lost. How I wish these lines of Ghazali became the loadstone of every Muslim theological council, a guiding principle for the multiple bodies issuing ethical and legal guidance, known as fatwa-committees, and if only community organizations at large could understand the need to ask questions and momentarily be freed from their unshakeable certainties of what they perceive to be ‘tradition’. Faith in tradition requires thinking. Tradition is to a large extent a mode of civility. Part of civility is to think. German-Jewish émigré scholar to the USA, Hannah Arendt, in her own brilliant way, prompts us to think about the various permutations of what she called the ‘banality of evil’. ‘This total absence of thinking’, she wrote, ‘attracted my interest’. ‘Is our ability to judge, to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly, dependent upon our faculty of thought’? ‘Do the inability to think and a disastrous failure of what we commonly call conscience coincide’? Arendt’s words resonate with Ghazali’s invitation to think and both require some pondering.

Nguyen makes us aware of the possible ways of imagining tradition and the need to cultivate a religious imagination in this book. But he also makes us aware that without a commitment to tradition, tradition might turn out to be a bridge to nowhere. Both Ghazali and Malcolm X tied themselves to tradition and also were critical of the tradition in their respective ways. In the case of Malcolm X, Nguyen movingly and touchingly unwinds the camera on this figure’s complex life as a criminal, prisoner, outspoken champion for the cause of the Nation of Islam and then expelled only to find himself in a larger ambit of Islam outside the particular interpretation of Islam that his former mentor, Elijah Muhammad, provided.

Ghazali too tolerates a variety of interpretations of metaphysics and theology, even creating a multifaceted hermeneutical device to accommodate a multiplicity of views within the ambit of tradition. Ghazali has to struggle with his own demons of doubt occasioned by a combination of factors, some of them political and others more to do with the vast intellectual apparatus he marshalled from philosophy, law, theology to mysticism. So, while Ghazali is very generous to a wide variety of interpretations, he does succumb to a process of anathematizing the Muslim philosophers on three counts: for they believed the world was not created but rather emanated from some eternal source, they claimed God only knew the universals and did not have a particular appetite for the particulars, and, they claimed that resurrection is spiritual and not physical. Such doctrines, Ghazali held, conflicted with accepted doctrines of Islam and deserving of anathema. One question that troubled me was: why could Ghazali not be generous to some of his intellectual predecessors or be less damning?

Ghazali’s vehemence against the philosophers could in part be because they had already left the stage and he used them for heuristic purposes. But that is not a compelling reason. I am now persuaded by the fact that Ghazali’s antipathy toward the Muslim philosophers had to do with the reigning politics at the time and his suspicion of the role of philosophy used in the propaganda of the adversaries of the Abbasid-Saljuq establishment who were his patrons. The Ismaili caliphate based in Cairo were trying to make inroads in the lands of the eastern caliphate under Abbasid-Saljuq rule. The Ismaili propagandists used philosophy and philosophical arguments as a means to seduce their interlocutors. Ghazali in a fit of political activism felt he had to dent the reputation and peerless character of the philosophers whose legacies were aiding the adversaries of his patrons and sponsors.

Tradition and commitment to tradition might be valuable, but I wonder if Prof Nguyen will agree with me that things really become murky when theologians also have to take sides in political squabbles and declare their loyalties in the fashion that Ghazali did. In the case of Malcolm X, his political activism got him caught up in the crossfire of national politics when he commented on the assassination of former president John F. Kennedy without authorization from the Nation of Islam. Some other internal issues, which Nguyen discusses, and his unauthorized public remarks initiated his exit from the Nation of Islam. It also calibrated his previous theology of making hard and fast distinctions between black and white, and he began to discover the gray areas of life. This took him to a more inclusive understanding of Islam.

‘Activists and leaders of all stripes might want to contemplate that their actions have consequences. Critics must beware that they hurt the civility of the tradition when their indignation surpasses their wisdom’.

Today, too many contemporary intellectuals and religious leaders are caught up in the crossfire of controversial national and international politics and community expectations. Activists and leaders of all stripes might want to contemplate that their actions have consequences. Critics must beware that they hurt the civility of the tradition when their indignation surpasses their wisdom. Furthermore, one’s current perspectives and loyalties might be open to mutation, or one’s words and conduct might not further civility. Leaders must contemplate that while their interventions might look constructive at this point, it might have other consequences and impact people’s faith in the tradition when they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that their spokespersons and champions are failing.

Tradition contains gossamer-thin sensibilities and we might be more careful when we disturb its complex network. Nguyen urges us to think of the sacred direction of Muslim worship and give attention to the shrine in Mecca, as the Kaʿba consists of stones that are worth preserving. This is an archaeology of Muslim history and practice, and every stone, metaphorically-speaking, would remind us how to be at once part of the ‘furnace of tradition’, and also direct us to those who are ‘upholding tradition’, and simultaneously allow us to engage in ‘historical contestations’ as the author of this wonderful book reminds us in his well-chosen words.