Dr Youshaa Patel
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies – Lafayette College, USA
This post is Part 3 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 and Part 2 may be found on the Christian-Muslim Studies Network blog.
In Modern Muslim Theology, Martin Nguyen convincingly persuaded me to reimagine theology not as the dry mental exercise of defining religious creed, but as a spiritually and ethically engaged response to the divine involving ‘the entirety of one’s being (p. 23)’. Theology, in this view, should no longer stand in the shadow of the law (shariʿa). This bold rethinking expands theology beyond the exclusive preserve of religious elites to the inclusive space of everyday Muslim faith and practice. In this eclectic, cross-disciplinary study, Nguyen gracefully weaves the academic disciplines of religious studies, philosophy, anthropology, and literary theory into his original readings of Islamic scripture and tradition, from al-Ghazālī to Malcolm X. His writing style is poetic, elegant, lucid.
‘Martin Nguyen convincingly persuaded me to reimagine theology not as the dry mental exercise of defining religious creed, but as a spiritually and ethically engaged response to the divine involving “the entirety of one’s being”. Theology, in this view, should no longer stand in the shadow of the law’.
Although I could dwell on Nguyen’s brilliant meditations on death, time, and the imagination, I was particularly struck by his use of the kaʿba, the black cubical structure in Mecca that Muslims face during prayer, as a metaphor for the concept of tradition (Chapter 3). After leading the reader on a tour of influential theories of tradition, including those of Eric Hobsbawm, Alasdair MacInTyre, and Talal Asad, Nguyen argues that an Islamic conception of tradition requires a greater role for God, who is, after all, the source of all tradition (Nguyen writes from the perspective of a believing Muslim).
The kaʿba, he argues, is an effective metaphor for tradition because it balances the agency of God with that of human beings in defining tradition over time — as illustrated by the story of the kaʿba itself, which has been made, destroyed, and remade by human hands throughout history, from the first century of Islam to the present. In a similar way, tradition transforms, blending rupture and continuity, as time passes. This creative rethinking of tradition is not only an exercise of the religious imagination, but is also an effective rhetorical device for embedding academic theory in the distinctive vocabulary of Islam. Muslim lay-readers, in my view, will more readily see this reconceptualization of tradition as ‘Islamic’.
But given Nguyen’s stress on the historical context of Muslim theology, it is worthwhile to reflect further on the sacred history and meaning of the kaʿba. When the Quran (Q 2:144) originally commands Muhammad to turn from Jerusalem to Mecca for prayer, this pivot was widely understood by Muslim religious authorities not only as a new direction for ritual prayer but also as a new direction for the Muslim community — as a potent symbol for the collective reorientation of the Muslim community away from Judeo-Christian tradition. More pointedly, this physical gesture came to publicly signal the emergence of Muslims as a distinct community, and Islam as a distinct religion. Given that Nguyen refers to the Muslim community as the ‘people of the qibla (ahl al-qibla)’, where qibla refers to the direction of prayer (p. 4), in order to strengthen Muslim solidarity across intra-religious differences, how can this metaphor of the kaʿba as tradition reorient the Muslim community towards other religious communities in a way that stresses inter-religious solidarity over difference — if that is a goal of modern Muslim theology?