Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ramblings on being a Muslim Arab Atheist...

About a year ago, I put it in my head that once I finish university, I wanted to read al-Ghazali's Ihya Ulum al Din (Revival of the sciences of Faith). This is a set of books which aimed to not only teach a person what the Islamic faith is, but also why. It is one of the most widely acclaimed books covering concepts such as Islamic law, philosophy and Sufism. I must say, this is the first time I read a religious book that is remarkably clear, logical and frank. Five years of being a die hard atheist ridiculing peoples ancient fairy tales has given me a healthy skepticism of religious texts. Not so with al-Ghazali who lived and died almost 1000 years ago.

The jist of his first set of books, on the nature of worship and it's essence, is actually a step away from what he labels as the "traditionalist" fiqh scholars, those concerned with the observable aspects of the faith. These observable aspects, Ghazali argues, are insufficient for the seeker of the "path to the End". The Nafs (ego, self) is your own worst enemy and needs to constantly be kept in line, checked and tied down. Within each person are the seeds of their own downfall as well as the ability to soar to a much nobler state of mind, all depending on how effective your self control is. The importance of bringing your mind to focus on the inner meaning of whatever you do, be it prayer or reading the Quran and contemplating are of high importance. In essence, a true Muslim drives on manual, not auto. Ghazali takes us through a tour of the fundamental basics of the Islamic religion, the Islamic understanding of Allah, the nature of knowledge, it's types and the differences between those who 'know' and those who do not. Very philosophical and heavy going for the first few chapters but lays a vital groundwork which influences your understanding of what comes next.

Following on from these, al Ghazali, sparing no detail, goes through clearly and concisely into the nature and purpose of each of the five pillars of Islam: The Oath, Prayer, Alms, Fasting and finally, the Hajj. Each is done in a particular way for a particular reason, there are things which are disliked or prohibited and preferred ways of doing things. He also tackles common misconceptions (at the time) of various aspects of practice. Throughout, he emphasises strongly the need to bring your heart and mind into what you are doing, rather than sink into a non-thinking, automatic repetition of words and gestures. I have to say that by the end of it, I had a much more healthy and profound understanding to what I had previously imagined were stale and meaningless rituals. Rather than the rigid, mostly Western influenced, interpretation of religion, traditionalism and ritual, I was finding what was the true essence of this religion which 'spread out of the desert'. Essentially a different coloured lense was showing me something in a completely different light. Perhaps because I was also reading the work of Shariati at the time, but my conception of it is becoming more in line with a faith for the poor and downtrodden, empowering and liberating from societal bonds and pressures to conform.

While I was an atheist for about five or six years, most friends of mine do not yet realise that I have become a Muslim again. This time it was not out of any compulsion or desperation but rather a genuine search for values and principles which can help me make sense from the complex kaleidsocope presented to you when you begin studying various theories and philosophies. Feminism, marxism, liberalism, neo-liberalism, a lot of Gramsci - each of these at the time, served to reinforce my almost post-modern belief that there was no single and universal truth for everybody. I did not find it uncomfortable or bewildering at the time, slipping into a nihilism with which I happily bludgeoned the naive and foolish enough to tell me their vision was truth. How I made this transition is something I'm still articulating, but somewhere in between reading all these theories, I noticed a startling similarity to things I had read as a Muslim teenager. I was also quite angry with the ignorance I encountered with regards to Islam by people I had previously thought were quite intelligent and educated; Qunfuz had similar views on this and has written a recent posting on his experiences. Islam as a faith was to them frightening, alien and a throwback to a medieval world. Part of my problem was that their own interpretation of medieval was in fact due to Europes experience and recession during that time. My identity as an Arab was etched with the realisation that life wasn't too bad at all in the Middle East and North Africa, nor in central Asia or elsewhere. My understanding of history had earlier been complemented by a reading of Robert Cox, theories of hegemony and a highly interesting book on the subject by Peter Taylor.

Studying for International Relations, I had always been keenly aware that all these theories and ideas were developed in Europe and North America and that the rest of the world willingly or unwittingly took this as the epistemological framework within which they existed. I guess it was a short hop from there into identifying that my Arabism and the history I so admired was in fact imbued with this driving force called Islam. One did not have to be a Muslim to be part of that history either but discounting it entirely and flippantly as a relic of the past or even as barbarous was too much for me. Even my understanding of history as a pre-modern and modern era was called into question when I looked further into the word. By the time I had stumbled upon Edward Said and Orientalism the pieces were probably already set. I felt I owed it upon myself to find out more about this, if not for other peoples understanding then also for myself. What was this foundation of mine which I did not know anything about? I guess the only reason I am a Muslim now is because I found that so far there is actually nothing wrong with that faith, but with the prevailing attitudes and world we are shaped within. The more I discover, I find that in fact, there is nothing at all limiting or backwards. Rather, it is liberating in the sense that I think about what it is I do or see before making an assumption. While many theories are mostly concerned with how you must live with others, it is rare to find a belief which shows you how you can live with yourself too.

Soon I will be beginning the second in al Ghazali's five book bound set I have, concerned with concepts of right and wrong, the disciplining of the self and other matters. He's taken my hand and shown me around, now he's inviting me into the maze...
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8 comments:

bint battuta said...

Really interesting and thought-provoking post.

Yazan said...

http://zozo2k3.blogspot.com/2007/02/im-atheist-moslem.html

One of your finest posts.

Philip I said...

Excellent post Wassim. An honest and fascinating intellectual and spiritual roundtrip.

You indirectly demonstrate that there is indeed nothing inherently wrong with any religion. But it is useful sometimes to remind ourselves what religion is and why it exerts such a powerful influence on peoples' minds and behaviour. Or is it the other way round? Is it that peoples' minds through the millenia have developed all kinds of religions for a purpose?

If you look deep into the human spirit, you find that religion satisfies three basic social and emotional needs: (1) a moral code based on a carrot and a stick to prevent man eating his fellow man, develop communal power and identity and promote harmony and cooperation among members of the community. (2) open a private communication channel to an all-knowing all-powerful being (God)for salvation and explanation of the inexplicable in a cruel and complex world, and (3) a way of escaping one's own, generally weak, deficient and contradictory moral values to seek enlightenment and temporary refuge in the spiritual/metaphysical world.

The rituals of any religion are there to (1) reinforce compliance so individuals, from an early age, develop "desirable" and predictable behaviour patterns (2) promote community cohesion and loyalty through shared experience and (3) encourage allegience to the community leadership. Without rituals, no "religion" would withstand the test of time and no community could be stabilised or mobilised for war, food production or construction.

Rationalising the existence of religion in this way is neither really helpful nor relevant to people who simply choose to "believe" and "belong". Most people are probably better off believing and belonging rather than rationalising and questioning. But it is only through the occasional rationalising and questioning by scholars like Al-ghazali that the main religions of the world have survived for so long.

The Syrian Brit said...

This is absolutely facinating..
You have described the struggle that many intellectuals in the Arab and Muslim Worlds go through as they try to make some sense of life as the are taught it, and reconcile that with life as they perceive it..
Thank you for a thought-provoking and interesting read...

The Syrian Brit said...

of course, I mean 'fascinating'!..
Oops!..

Wassim said...

Thank you all so much for the comments! I'm so happy that you found it interesting. More on this as I uncover it. :)

qunfuz said...

A great post. al-Ghazali should be read more these days, not least for his reconciling of legalistic orthodoxy with experiential Sufiism. It's a great corrective to the anti-Sufi extremism of Wahabi thought. I found the section of the ihya uloom ad-deen on the 99 Beautiful Names of God to be particularly thought provoking.
As for your other interesting post on Khomeini's Islamic state - although I am a great admirer of Hizbullah and a partial admirer of Khomeini, I worry that the obsession with a homogenising invasive state has perverted Islamism, Arabism and socialism. The nation state comes from 19th Century Europe, not from Madina, and while it is already semi-obsolete in Europe, the rest of us are still sick with the disease. Our rulers are now transnational. Really effective opposition must be too.

Wassim said...

Qunfuz,
Excellent point on the obsolesence of the nation state ideal. I think while coming across Khomeini's readings, the idea of a nation state in the European state is not quite what he has in mind. Rather it appears to be Islamic government with the area it controls loosely labelled a state. From what I gleaned of his and Hezbullah writings are an overarching paradigm inspired and run by Islamic beliefs with life carrying on as normal below. Albeit defining normal is itself a subjective issue in todays highly westernised world of norms and values. I too worry about an invasive state and have reservations about it's application in Iran.