Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It's a question of starting points

I've thought often about how "tradition" and "custom" are used in the English-speaking and, perhaps, Western press when the discussion is around Asian, South American or African peoples. To be "free" from these is somehow considered to be a celebration of the "human" in us, as if through this shared commonality all our problems could go away. In Arabic we have a word for tradition and custom, it is called "Osool" أصول (origin or starting point), and to call somebody the son or daughter of "Asl" is a very high complement. This is not the case if you are Western, as we can see with some of the literature centred around "liberating" the oppressed Muslim or Arab woman from this heavy handed tradition, this idea of Asl is considered negative. So we are encouraged to abandon this backwards notion of Asl and celebrate in a festival of humanism, colours, swirl and spontaneity. I am not going to talk about colonialism or capitalism here, which use this argument as a tool, but deal directly with this fallacy, and it is a fallacy. For the human cannot live with another human, we cannot stand each other in fact, but we are required to get along out of necessity and out of a deeper need to be around each other. But we constantly have tension and pressures as to how to deal with one another. Those who have had the pleasure of sharing a home with strangers for extended periods of time know this pressure. It is for this reason that we require ways to deal with each other, or Osool. Here I want to look at this Osool, I want to see how it fits in to who I am and what it means to me as an Arab and a Muslim - step by step.

Firstly I have a strong feeling that in many cultures what I am saying is not too strange a concept. Aristotle called Man a political animal, one who requires not just family but relations, friends, a tribe and a people. Human beings begin their lives as parts of families, these families extend into tribes and the tribes then progress into a nation. In Arabic we refer to this concept of nation as Ummah, nation is probably too crude a word to describe what it means. So, like the ancient Greeks, the Arabs have an organic perception of the order of human organisation with the family as the basic starting point. Families quarrel, so a hierarchy based on the dichotomy of male and female, parent and offspring emerges simply for everyone to be able to survive. This is the Asl, and it then translates into ways of dealing with relatives, with other families who are in the tribe, other tribes and then between Ummam (plural of Ummah).

The Arabs were originally a group of tribes, the sons of Ishmael أسماعيل who was himself the son of the prophet Abraham and by the time the prophet Muhammad had begun teaching Islam, they had already developed a sophisticated and elaborate system of Osool for dealing with problems, conflict and issues such as ethics and morality. There is a Hadith of the Prophet in which he says أنما بعثت لأتمم مكارم الأخلاق (I have been sent to complement the finest of manners), for at the time that Muhammad became a prophet, money, not honour or Asl, were being used to define peoples relationship with each other. In Islam we call this period al Jahiliyyah (The Age of Ignorance), not because of technological backwardness, but for such a decline in morality as well as the practice of idolatry. What the prophet did was to strengthen these Osool and imbue them with a renewed spiritual link to the One. The Muslims are referred to as Ummat Muhammad (Muhammad's nation) because of this, a nation which is based on Arabic Osool, but not exclusive to the Arabs. When it came to the prickly notion of "nationality" the prophet had been firmly against any Asabiyah (roughly as nationalism, stubborness), calling it a trait of the Jahiliyyah, a time when tribes fought each other for petty reasons, ignoring the laws and the Osool which bind them together originally. His was a humanism which considered difference, variety and quarrels. It built on the Osool of the Jews and the Christians, it was similar to the Osool of the ancient Greeks and of other cultures to some extent because we are of course all human and related from the same tribes that spread from central Asia and had once shared a belief in a common God who was the source of all things, but whose worship was abandoned because He was believed to be too distant. Karen Armstrong has written some interesting things about this in her book, the Age of Transformations. Muhammad himself never said he was bringing anything new, only strengthening the Osool and faith or Deen, and purging the complications and corruptions that can emerge with time. So the Osool or laws, uncorrupted, are a vital part of our makeup as people, we need this to prosper, to be happy, or as Aristotle called it, to have Eudamonia. It is a way for us to take into account the feelings of others, to protect our own feelings from any perceived injustice, and to hold others to account for failing to measure up to these Osool. From Osool we get Urf, or "the known", which in English might mean Common Law, and then from the Urf there is also Shariah, which is law, and in the case of Muslims, The Law. The reason why this word comes up often is because the basis for this Shariah is in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and in the Qur'an. They have helped preserve the Osool of not only the Arabs but of other peoples too who accepted it, for the Urf of one Islamic people is different from that of another, yet it is integrated into the faith, and from that we get variety according to different circumstances. For example, the custom for the old Circassians is to be taken "khteefe" or kidnapped. The parents would know this was happening, they would even help her pack her bags. In the dead of night the groom would come, "steal" his bride, take her to the Sheikh and marry her. It is done within Osool, for the man is not committing adultery with her, but taking her for his own, respecting her through the Sheikh and fulfilling his duty to the Osool and to Allah. In Egypt, I hear some villages have a slightly more relaxed version of marriage, whereby the formality of marriage is less severe than in the cities, but it is agreed by all that the two are married by being together. Should one or the other commit adultery, the community would still condemn the act just as severely. So Urf, grows out of Osool, and leads to Shariah, which is the bottom line and ultimate reference for us.

This leads us to the notion of "states" and the West's apparent discomfort with Osool, or as they call it, "traditions". One of the first things I found as an Arab and Muslim coming to the West was this complete disregard for Osool, or the feelings of the others. There is an atomised view of society in which familial connections are much weaker than where I come from and the notion of a "tribe" or Ummah has disappeared. There is something they call the state, which I am familiar with because the West occupied and pillaged almost the entire surface area of the earth at some stage or another. So I am forced to deal with that concept. The state grew out of the necessities of capitalism rather than any foolish attempt to separate "church and state". It was an attempt for ruling kings to eliminate the control of the powerful Catholic church over their own territories so that they can better exploit them to their own interests. The powerful barons then did the same to the king, as in the famous Magna Charta, and these barons themselves, as was the case in England, destroyed their own power through quarelling and fighting, leaving the floor clear for the merchant classes with power and money. It is inconvenient to have a society with strong family ties, ethics and a code of conduct when you wish to make as much money as possible, so tribal and familial relations were taken to the breaking point. At this phase, Europe, whilst experiencing a technological leap also eliminated her Osool with money and the necessities that making money bring. There was no prophet Muhammad for her to reawaken this feeling and it has now all but evaporated. Instead, the intrusiveness of the state, the poverty of their philosophy, leads to the growth of schools of thought which influence us today such as liberalism, socialism and fascism. These attempted to address the imbalance which resulted, yet none are concerned with the relation between human being and human being, but between human being and the state. None of them try to answer the fundamental question of what constitutes "the good" for people, but rather they leave people in a vacuum to figure this out on their own, in the wake of the damage caused by the creation of the state, and completely divorced and alienated from each other and their own history. Capitalism is a problem which emerged from the West, it is not the same as the typical greed and avarice of tribes and kingdoms between each other, but is much more voracious, mechanical and unthinking. Whilst it is a problem we have to deal with as Muslims and Arabs, it is so only because of occupation by the West and not due to problems we face in our own Ummah, of which there are many. Living in the West as I do, I could not care less about these vague political terms such as capitalist, Marxist, fascist. They are squabbles which are not relevant to me and have no effect, insofar as I am able to resist occupation. They do not pose existential problems for me, as much as I might sympathise with one or the other. Feminism is crucial for Western societies where everything is commodified, but I am indifferent to it in the context of my own Ummah, if not slightly resentful of its intrusion. I do not fuss anymore about whether I use he or she for describing a person in my examples, I use he. Not out of disrespect for any female, many of whom I am related with, but because I know where this comes from in the order of things, I know the standard for justice and I have no fear of committing injustice to any woman except by accident. In a society where the Osool is for everyone to shake with the right hand, why do I decide to come and change it so that they use the left instead. Or even worse, make it so that it would not matter which is used, meaning nobody knows how to greet the other and there is constant discomfort. One is as good as the other isn't it? Isn't the point a bit more than just worrying about how we shake hands?

Knowing the order of things, the origin of things, is becoming so important to me. I take a joy in learning about the Osool, something which makes me slightly old fashioned to others in my generation, but that is because they are directly rooted in what makes me an Arab and a Muslim, and not vague notions of Arab nationalism which were imported from the colonial powers. It makes things so much more comfortable when I go back home and deal with other Arabs, or with people in general. Discomfort about handling guests, being a guest or dealing with people you don't like vanishes. Fulfilling my obligations towards others and towards myself leaves me content and free to pursue knowledge, spirituality or just to marvel at beautiful things. The anxiety of post-modernism, of relativism, and of every other -ism which is the product of Western philosophy (with a capital W), falls off my shoulders. I just ask different questions of the world around me.


boxthejack said...

Superb piece, thank you. Not in a 'thank you for titillating my intellect' kinda way - it's meatier than that.

A Westerner may be inclined to respond by embracing a perceived 'Western' tradition for its own sake, but one of the crucial points you hint at is that those social lubricants we might call 'traditions' are merely the upper stratum of a much deeper geology.

As soon as one chooses to embrace a particular tradition over and above others, that tradition is just part of your own pic'n'mix life and begins to look farcical. An upper stratum with nothing below.

You have helped me though Wassim. Like most, I doubt and wrestle with the implications of the 'Usool upon which I've built my life (God and his incarnation). Like everyone, theist or atheist, I can not prove that I know the Source like one can prove a simple formula. I could allow this doubt define me.

Or I could live as I hope it is. Traditions are just little tokens and perhaps to live with them is in fact to express hope that confounds the individual's individualist angst.

It is at least to concede that there is more than me to me.

lotf ali said...

Wonderful post Maysaloon. The last paragraph really resonates for me.

Maysaloon said...

Thanks for the great feedback guys.

Unknown said...


I loved your reflections on this topic. very well written.

but pleaaasssseeee use paragraphs :) my eyes hurt ;-)