St Augustine on Love and Understanding

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rest tantum cognoscitur quantum diligutur– “one can understand something only to the extent that one loves it.”

May we love what we know, and know what we love.

Hidden and Manifest Kingdoms

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While perusing “In the Garden of Exegesis” “في رياض التفسير” by Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, the great West African arif and scholar, and arguably one of the biggest saints of the 20th century, I found the following interpretation to be striking. Its implications on how we understand power and authority in Islam from a mystical perspective are noteworthy, especially when talking about “the modern state”. He says: “المشهورين في بركة المستورين” (“The notorious ones are protected by the virtues of those unseen”)

قال الشيخ ابراهيم نياس ضمن تفسيره لهذه الآية )ص188/ج6( :
أنزل الله تبارك وتعالى سورتين كلاهما فتحها بقوله “تبارك” ومعناه كثرت خيراته أو تعالى تنزه عن صفات المحدثين.. الله تبارك وتعالى متصف بجميع صفاته اللائقة به ومنزه عن جميع صفات المحدثين، أولا : “تبارك الذي نزل القرءان على عبده” وهذه ” تبارك الذي بيده الملك”، فالعالم دائما تقوم فيه دولتان، دولة ظاهرة لأرباب الدول ودولة باطنة للمتمسكين بالقرءان لأن الله هو الملك الحق، وهو ظاهر وباطن، فظاهر مملكته للملوك وباطنها للعلماء ورثة الأنبياء خلفاء الله في الأرض، فكل دولة ظاهرة قائمة بقوة دولة باطنة، فأهل الدنيا مددهم وقوامهم يأتيهم من أهل الله، فالمشهورون في بركة المستورين.

Translation:

“Allah Almighty revealed two chapters which were opened with the word “Exalted”, which means: His bounty has increased or is Mightier than the description of those who profess to describe Him. Allah Almighty is described by all His qualities that befit Him and He is loftier than the description of who profess to describe Him.
First:”Exalted was the One who has revealed the Quran upon his servant (Muhammad).” And this, “Exalted is the One who wields dominion in his hand.” For the world always has two kingdoms established in it: a manifest kingdom for the lords of countries and a hidden kingdom for the those who hold fast to the Qur’an because Allah is the True King (possessor), as He is manifest and hidden. So the manifest of His kingdom is for the kings and its hidden kingdom belongs to the ulama, (the knowledgeable people) who are inheritors to the Prophets and are the vicegerents of Allah on earth.
Hence every manifest kingdom survives on the strength of the hidden kingdom. So the people of the world get their power and privilege from the people of Allah. The notorious ones are protected by the virtues of those unseen.”

Other works such as Imam Tirmidhi’s work, Khitm al-Awliya,  the “Seal of the Saints” and many other works extol the virtues of sainthood, but I haven’t seen allusions to a “hidden country” and a “manifest one” anywhere else. Perhaps Shaykh Ibrahim was particularly influenced by the disenchanting contradictions of the Muslim nation state during the time and context in which he wrote this.

But what can be said about the righteous ones who also have political power in the modern state? I just finished reading The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam by Moin Azfarwhich narrates the fascinating history of Mughal and Safavid kings who were revered as spiritual guides and symbols of a  messianic reflection of God’s light on earth. In a more sober and modern context, what can be said about pious king Idris al-Sanusi of Libya, for example, who led anti-colonial campaigns and also headed the Sanusiya sufi order during his reign? Have decades of secular Arab leaders and the now more public animus towards political Islam obliterated any prospect for a unity between piety and power? Or will we only see this in a messianic, end-of-times scenario? Keeping the two in neat, separate spheres for now (the baraka of the pious vs. the rulers/ hidden vs. manifest kingdoms)  resonates more than ever today in the 21st century.

When all is done, لا حول ولا قوة إلى بالله – power belongs to God alone. Azad Bilgrami’s lines come to mind:

In the end, glory turns again to poverty; 

The rose’s crown turns into a beggar’s bowl. 

 

Musings on Gender in Muslim Academia

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There is no denying that academia is a male-dominated field. Both in Western academia, but more so in the world of traditional Islamic studies, where it is highly unusual for female scholars to be a) trained as scholars in their own right b) appear publicly as viable and active voices in intra-Muslim scholastic circles. With the recent Nouman Ali Khan controversy,  Ustadha Zaynab Ansari’s article from a few years ago on the scandalous gender dynamics of “celebrity shaykhs” in the West rings all the more true. One aspect that is not often discussed when scandals like this surface, is the lack of female “alpha” scholars. Ustadha Zaynab begins the article by highlighting how much of an anomaly she is, as one of the few classically trained female scholars who have the training to engage the Western Muslim public and scholastic sphere. The fact that she describes herself as a a rarity is in itself a core problem – access to traditional knowledge for women is extremely hard to come by. When it does, women are often confined to ideals of quietism and pietistic pedestals,  relegated to the back of a stuffy classroom or in the hidden chatrooms of an online “sacred knowledge” course, enshrouded both figuratively and literally by the expectations of haya’ and ‘ifa. And worse if a woman doesn’t conform to the expected ideals and standards of piety. A far cry from the days of early Islam, where Ayesha, the wife of the Prophet publicly taught throngs of her Noble husband’s finest and most knowledgeable companions. Perhaps this less-than-ideal condition we are witnessing today is endemic to contemporary Western Muslims’ approaches to acquiring knowledge. In modern Syria and West Africa and elsewhere in the Muslim world, for example, there exists a rich tradition of promoting and championing female scholars capable of achieving the highest ranks in authoritative knowledge. This is an existential problem for Muslim scholars, because when women are left out, Islamic scholarship will always be incomplete and deemed as irrelevant and removed from the challenges of our day. The wedge between “progressive” scholars and “traditionalist” ones is larger than ever, why aren’t fruitful conversations happening? Where does the middle ground lie?

At the risk of generalizing, I can only speak of my own experience. I fall neither squarely in the “eastern” nor “western” spheres of knowledge seeking and production. I was born and raised in Jordan, with roots in the Hijaz, to a father born in Sinai to a family with a proud heritage of scholarship and religious authority. I also attended highbrow elitist English and IB schools and went on to attend various American colleges in different fields and degrees ranging from political science, to Islamic studies as well as anthropology and history. Consciously or not, I was trained in the liberal secular canon since my school days, even as a pupil undergoing the mandatory government mandated curricula in Islamic studies. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college in Washington D.C. that I began anchoring myself better in my own religious and intellectual tradition; turning my face to a vast unseen ocean that had always existed right before my eyes, which years of social conditioning and a postcolonial disdain for religious studies prevented me from accessing.

Given all the experiences that have comprised my formation, and wedged between “traditional” and “secular” modalities of education, I can firmly say without hesitation that the single-most cumbersome challenge for Muslim women to succeed and grow in the field of Islamic studies has been the heavy tinge of both secular and religious male dominance. Personally speaking, the confluence of my east/west,religious/secular, liberal/conservative encounters with circles (and gatekeepers) of knowledge simply have one thing in common: authoritative alpha males dominate each field. This fact isn’t what’s “bad” per se but if a woman is easily deterred, it is not an easy path. The opportunities I was afforded were due to God and my own veracity, and, the grace and foresight of empathetic and just men and women (to them, I owe my sincere gratitude as many continue to be lifelong sources of support and mentorship).

At the same time, female scholars face hurdles and roadblocks by those who automatically relegate their status (young and female) to one of inferiority, whether consciously or not.  It is harder to get research assistance and access due to tangible discrimination. The types of bias includes a slew of unanswered emails, cynical snubs, being excluded from male-only conferences and patronizing brush-offs. This was not solely the attitude of men, it was adopted by women too. For example I could never waltz into a room where a “famous” male scholar was speaking  and speak my mind without being lauded as “brave” or “daring” by dumbfounded female peers. Fresh out of college in Jordan, I recall an encounter that left me feeling, for the first time, that my worth fell squarely on my looks and not on my substance nor my mind. It’s a terrible feeling that many women no doubt experience at one point or another in their lifetime.

Let us shelf my personal anecdotes for a second ( I am sure many women can chime in with worse stories). This is not meant to be a sob story I am not looking for sympathy nor pity.  I write this for other women, who might be feeling discouraged and marginalized, and to remind them to persist. The terrible status of women in Western academia is well documented and well researched. It is statistically proven that scholarship by women is significantly less likely to be read and cited than that of men. Bias against mothers continues to hold them from achieving tenure. Women do the most billable work but get paid less and make up most adjuncts.. there is a lot of depressing data on this. I even know a brilliant Muslim female academic who is considering publishing her first book under a male alias, just so that her ideas see the light of day. How depressing is that! In Islamic traditional circles of knowledge seeking, the bias against female scholarship is yet to be addressed as a serious moral crisis. Seldom do the shuyukh, the ulama and the popular asatidha address this tangible problem.

Now more than ever, a concerted conscientious effort is required by the gatekeepers of knowledge production to enable, encourage and uphold the place of female scholarship, be they male or females with a patriarchal mindset. And the work is far from done for academic women themselves to swim up the stream. I write this as a chronicle of obstacles and as a documentation of the state of the fields in both traditional and secular Islamic studies circles in these “post-Orietnalist” times. A more gender-just approach to women in the field is needed urgently, so that next time a Professor or a scholar receives a research inquiry from a certain Fatima perhaps this time, he will think twice about ignoring it or sending her a dry one-liner, or when a white convert Jane Doe approaches him hesitantly after a lecture, he might ask the swarm of fanboys to make way for her at his next lecture, or when an intelligent young female scholar offers insights and advice, it is not because she “lacks adab” or is a home-wrecking seductress. In this, Ihsan – a higher, Prophetic form of treating women as *human beings first* – is imperative.  Unless and until men of knowledge are empowered to overcome their deliberate lack of esteem and regard towards women of knowledge, the state of the field(s) will continue to reek of egoism, hypocrisy and tyranny. Let them remember the words of Nizamuddin Auliya when he spoke of pious women of knowledge: ‘when a wild lion leaves the jungle and enters an inhabited area, no one asks: ‘Is it male or female?’ for all the children of Adam, men as well as women, are called to piety and to service of God.’

 

Why Ihsan?

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Reading and writing for leisure is a luxury not afforded to PhD students in the humanities, despite the fact that our bread-and-butter is supposedly that: reading and writing. Except as PhD students, we often do so at the dictates of our research, coursework or qualifying exams. The rare few among us are those whose work is simultaneously their leisurely escape, but even so,  there will always be a gnawing sense of guilt if and when we choose to write for purposes of other-than research, as it is implicitly deemed an act of “wasting”precious time. With that said, this blog is an attempt to chronicle my thought process as a PhD student in Islamic intellectual history, with the vision that observing the process is as important as the end goal itself; else, I fear that I may become a lifeless tumbleweed with no clarity or intention in my path or step. The pursuit of knowledge cannot and must not be aimless. It requires refinement, renewal, revision, humility and reassessment multiple times along the way. It also requires some soul and honesty, despite the harsh conditioning of academia that relegates us to becoming serious, hard nosed rationalists. And ultimately, it cannot be denied that the current political climate has capable researchers and academics of Islam stunted and muted. The mainstream rhetoric is under a stronghold of ignorance, fear mongering and the Tendency to Speak in Absolutes (what I like to call TSA, an unintentional ironic jab at the security apparatus that guards the entry ports to this great nation).

My informal blog Ihsanism is a play on the word “Islamism”, the word used to describe political Islam; one of the areas of my research that holds the intersection between ideology, Islam and modernity. Why Ihsan? It is one of the dimensions that constitutes the tripartite conception of what Islam is, according to the Hadith of Gabriel.  Ihsan is to “worship God as if one sees Him.” It is often used synonymously to mean the inner dimensions of knowledge, esotericism or Sufism. “Isms” as we all know, imply an ideology or organized political thought, hence, this space will be devoted to the fine barzakh (meeting place/limbo) between inner-dimensions of Islam, and the more mundane contemporary sphere and manifestations thereof, like culture, politics and gender.

 

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