Monday, April 23, 2007

islam and the passion (for social justice)

On YouTube I found an excerpt from a Coversation between Cornel West and Toni Morrisson which touched on the political implications of Mel Gibson's Passion (among other things). I was also able to find a fuller transcript of the conversation from The Nation's website under the title Blues, Love and Politics. The aspect which I found most intriguing is the distinction West makes between being a "Prophetic Christian" and a "Constantinian Christian" and it made me wonder about whether a similar distinction could be applied to Islam.

MORRISON: [reading] "I am curious about the language of religion, which has become more pronounced in this Administration. Can you comment on the manipulation of religious belief and language for violent ends?"

WEST: That's one of the most dangerous features of our moment, there's no doubt about that. We live in a society in which 96 percent of our fellow citizens believe in God, and 72 percent believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, 71 percent believe that the Book of Revelation has an empirically verifiable potential and 71 percent believe in angels. I don't put that down, I'm a Christian myself, but I'm a different kind of Christian than a lot of these Christians.


WEST: [...] the other side of this thing is that here we are, living in the biggest empire since the Roman Empire. Now the underside of the Roman Empire is the cross; that's why political prisoners were put to death, those who had the courage to act against the powers that be. We're the legatees of Constantinian Christianity, after Christianity was incorporated into the Roman Empire and was the official religion of the Roman Empire, which went on persecuting Jews and others.

Now, you see, I'm a prophetic Christian, I'm not a Constantinian Christian. That's very important. Because I want to raise the question, well, if you're going to talk about Jesus, did you really talk about the empire that put him to death and what the connection is between that empire and the empire that we're a part of now, and what Jesus demands of us in this empire given what he was willing to sacrifice in his own imperial moment? And I say now, Gibson, what have you got to say? But, he says, no, I'm going to give you sadomasochistic voyeurism.

So does this distinction play itself out in Islam? If so, how are the lines drawn?

Some might be tempted to say that the so-called Progressive Muslims are perhaps the analogue of West's "Prophetic Christian" but ironically, a number of those who use this label (like Irshad Manji for instance) are only liberal when it comes to religious issues but are neocons in terms of their politics. And conversely, in the egalitarian face of islamic orthodoxy we have already seen some indication of how orthodox Islam is actually rather progressive, at least in terms of the economic aspects of social justice.

Some might be tempted to say that Sunni Islam is the "Imperial" Islam while Shiism is more the Islam of the persecuted powerless minority. But that would be a little bit too simple.

For example, for a while now I've been meaning to elaborate on the fact that each of the four great imams who established the foundations for orthodox Sunni law had spent some time in prison or otherwise punished by for principled disobedience to the state of their day.

And conversely, within Shiism, Ali Shariati makes the distinction between Red Shi'ism (the religion of martyrdom) vs. Black Shi'ism (the religion of mourning) each with their own attitudes towards monarchy and clerical power. Some Shias focus on Imam Hussein's noble sacrifices in the interests of justice while others, in a Gibson-esque way, choose to emphasize the blood and gore.

I feel like something more detailed should be said, but I think I'll just end up repeating a point I already tried to make clear in ideology and temperament; namely that if some Muslims have a greater concern for social justice than others, they will not be identified merely by ideological labels ("progresive" , "orthodox", "shia" etc.) but on the existential decisions individuals make in their everyday lives.

Other Grenada:
islam needs radicals
sushi revisited: part one
ali shariati


DA said...

I've come to feel that Islam is a simple and personal way of life, and that the bodies of orthodox Sunni (and Shia, for that matter) belief are manmade inventions largely altered to serve the status quo, much as Paul's version of Christianity. This doesn't mean I hate Orthodox Muslims or even Orthodox Islam, but it means I no longer wish to be associated with them. Some of the dumbest things I've ever said or believed, I've said and believed because I trusted corrupt and/or fallible people over my own reason.

I don't identify with the Progressive Movement either, simply because I have no idea what they stand for, if anything. Find any one thing and there are 20 members that are against it. I don't hate them either, or even have any particular problem with them, but it seems like a movement inspired by what they're NOT, moreso than what they ARE, i.e., against Politicized Sunni Orthodox Islam but after that there's no real connection.

I think maybe we spend too much time labeling ourselves (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone), and not enough just being human beings, do you follow me? Al-Qu'ran says that everything in the universe, knowingly or unknowingly, submits to the will of god...So I'm not really clear but that there's a difference between different kinds of Muslims or even just Muslims and "everybody else".

I've simply come to not care about intra-Muslim arguments that don't have a compassionate application. If we can't help peoples' lives get better, why would we bother worrying about 1,400 year old politics or hand positions during Salat or put out fatwas bannning music?

Sorry to ramble, just my 2 cents.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

Salaams, I respect your comments and intentions. I wish you well and hope it all works out.

I think your heart is in the right place. But personally I think it is a little tricky to be "just Muslim". It is nice to have a specific methodology for certain questions. And I guess in terms of sunni/shia issues I don't see it primarily as accepting a particular institution as much as having certain beliefs about history and following a certain methodology.

And I think you are right in the sense that people shouldn't make such a big deal about these differences. But in the long run, I think they are issues which Muslims should come to terms with even if they come up with "unorthodox" answers. And even as I say this, I don't feel like I'm "done" and have fixed answers.

sondjata said...

Interesting discussion and post. I'd like to see this fleshed out. hopefully there will be more feedback. On Dr. West's point on being a Prophetic Christian I think I can go back to my history teacher at Tuskegee who would point out the difference between Christianity and Christendom. Similarly the differences between say an organization such as The Shrine of the Black Madonna and other Christian organizations such as Seventh Day Adventists. The former embrace, as far as I know the Khemetic roots of Christianity whereas that would be seen as heresy by a SDA.

I like DA's point about progressives (by which I hope he meant the larger so-called progressive movements). It is a fundamental challenge they face. Ultimately progressive movements tend to be umbrellas for various ideaologies. Thier willingness to "accept" others allows them to join forces around specific issues (usually against something), but that lack of a clear ideology prevents the "platformization" of the "progressive" ideologies.

Again. Good post. Hope more people chime in.

Aziza said...

You have raised some important issues in your blog. I can only address a few due to time constraints.

I am not convinced that the comparison can be made between Prophetic Christianity and Constantinian Christianity works with Islam. You have pointed several cases that don't fit that dualistic mode.

Islamic law developed independently of the state, although the state tried to control the religious elites. The ulema some independence and often critiqued the state. For instance, the Ulema worked to check the state's attempts of using juristic preference to institute new tax laws. Other times the state tried to control the appointment of scholars. But this does not mean that scholars, jurisconsults, and judges were completely independent. But their relationship transformed from time to time and place to place.

I have not read much of Irshad Manji, but her project seems bent on reforming Islam to a Western model of religion. I also wonder why is she the spokesperson, as opposed to the more erudite progressive Muslims who have more nuanced views about religion, culture, and politics.

But I agree with the comment that this discussion should be fleshed out. Insha'Allah from this forum, we can begin to move towards deeper engagement with these issues. Maybe a conference, several conferences.

BTW, great reference to Ali Shariati. It is time I revisit him.
Peace and light,

Jinnzaman said...

Excellent post. Keep up the good work.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

it seems to me that there are several different distinctions being thrown around and don't think they all align. the original piece already mentioned constantinian v. prophetic, sunni v. shia, black v. red, progressive v. traditional/orthodox.

i would think that afrocentric v. non-afrocentric is another one. (Being pro-Black isn't the same as Pro-Liberation... but a Pro-Liberation belief system is going to be anti-racist)

i think christendom v. christian is also different but i think it is probably a lot like constantinian v. prophetic.

I think this is interesting because a lot of Christians and Muslims will make a similar kind of move. What I mean is an outsider (or maybe an insider) will make a distinction between Good Muslims/Christians and Bad Muslims/Christians. But the M/C will then say that the Bad M/C's aren't really M/C's.

But West isn't trying to define all of Christianity or define the bad Christians out of existence. He is willing to say that Constantinian Christians are still Christian, but then he'll say that his type of Christianity is not like their type of Christianity.


that said, I actually am tempted to say that "real" Islam really is more focused on social justice and that Islam *really* is a Liberation theology and it isn't some special version of Islam.

DA said...

Abdul-Halim: Thank you for your well-wishes and kind words.

I agree that it's "tricky" to go without a methodology, but then, a lot of worthwhile things are "tricky" to do.I'd like to be able to, say, study Hanafi fiqh and not feel that I wasn't forcing myself to ignore a LOT of issues and questions, btu I couldn't.

I don't feel I have all the answers, don't get me wrong. I just have also come to feel that religious orthodoxy as whole doesn't either, but has a bad tendency to tell you that it does, and you can only get it from them.

I don't mean any of this disrespeftfully, just explaining where I'm coming from.

I agree that Islam is pro-justice. I don't nessiscarily agree that orthodoxy always or even regularly promotes this.

Sondjata: I was more referring to the Progressive Islam movement, though much of what I said could be applied in some form to progressive movements on the whole. I consider myself in a very general way to be to the left politically, but what that means is open to discussion. What are we for, what are we against?

Incidentally, I've moved to a new blog, . It's more political and social and less spirtual in approach, but if you get a chance, your thoughts would be welcome.

sondjata said...

Sorry if I went off topic. Just responding to what I got from the piece. I don't think discussing Christendom vs. christianity is neccessarily divesting "bad" Christians out of Christianity but rather recognizing the difference between institution vs. the belief. I think that could cut across lines in discussing Islam Sharia (since a poster brought up the state) Caliphates, etc. Once a religion becomes institutionalized the faulty people in the institution may and do start to behave in manners that are in the best interest of the institution rather than the belief system it supposedly adheres to.

In terms of the pro-black vs. Pro liberation, I think that is a good point. I think the situation in Zimbabwe is a nice example of that. Mugabe could definitely be seen as being pro-black (at least at some point in his past) but is clearly not about liberation. Then again he could also be a victim of the institutionalization of supposed "pro-blackness" that strayed from it's liberation roots in the process of protecting and acting in it's own interest. I have a way overdue post on the subject matter though.

In terms of good and bad muslims and the tendency of some to attempt to excise the "bad' M/C from the larger body. I'm glad you bought that up. One of the major reasons for my Afro-centrity and Islam postings was that very notion where I have had people disclaim African Muslims involvement in the Atlantic Slave trade as not really being Muslim but then flipping the script when those same Africans were doing something "positive".

Da: I thought as much, though as you said, the paralels apply pretty much the same

Abdul-Halim V. said...

sondjata writes: "I don't think discussing Christendom vs. christianity is neccessarily divesting "bad" Christians out of Christianity but rather recognizing the difference between institution vs. the belief."

Ok, I had read you differently. I think of Christendom as being the lands and governments where Christianity is the majority.

(And in Islam a similar term would be Dar-ul-Islam)

And institutionalized Christianity I would just call "the Church". (Which I would say doesn't really have a good analogy in Islam... the building is the mosque... and perhaps the "authorities" might be the ulema but they aren't really ordained. The caliphate would be the government but it doesn't really exist anymore.)

But still, I guess there are definitely Islamic institutions (schools, mosques, charities, organizations, rulers) etc. which aren't perfect and have problems which should be addressed.

In terms of islam/afrocentricity, we've obviously exchanged a lot of words on the subject already. I think it is possible to state things carefully and consistently. I wouldn't say that no Muslims were slave-traders, but I would say that in Islam, mistreatment of slaves is clearly prohibited and freeing slaves is seen as a highly meritorious and encouraged act. And I don't see how that would be inconsistent with mentioning the great cultural achievements of African Muslim civilizations.

sondjata said...

I take "church/State" to be a reference to institutions as in any religions institution vs. any secular state entity. I think most people who have the discussion mean it that way too. It wouldn't make sense to equate church with a specific building or even a specific religion as the constitution is pretty clear that it's discussion pertains to religion period.

In the context of the slavery issue. My point was not about HOW one treats slaves (castration doesn't sound to nice to me.._ but rather the idea that some Muslims have that they can claim that African Muslims who participated in the Atlantic slave trade are somehow NOT Muslims.

My point being to piggy back on yours that when we try to excise those people in "our" belief systems as not being "real" whatevers, then we fail to take the opportunity to examine how and why their understanding of the belief system in question lead them to do the things they do. Which I think is kind of where West was going in his discussion and where my point of Christendom vs. Christianity comes from.

So for example this whole Shia/Sunni thing we see in Iraq could be seen as a problem with specific institutional ideas within each thread of Islam that allow for certain types of behaviour to be seen as appropriate even if it clearly contradicts something else (not to pick on Iraqis).

Abdul-Halim V. said...


my take on it is that it is easy to be Muslim. So those Arab slavetraders are Muslim. OBL is Muslim. So is Malcolm X and Amina Wadud and Rumi. So is Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Hassan Turabi. So is that brother over there praying in the corner of the masjid who you know drinks and has a girlfriend on the side. So all those people are Muslim. But not everything Muslims do necessarily reflects Islam.

As for castration... In pretty mainstream references even things like getting tattoos or certain dental procedures are questionable becuase they are "changing the creation of Allah". Moreover, in terms of Islamic biomedical rulings, permanent forms of birth control (whether male or female) are pretty unanimously prohibited. So I feel pretty comfortable that even though some Muslims did it, castration is certainly not a part of "Islamic" treatment of slaves.

I would also suggest that Sunnis/Shias are fighting that doesn't mean that the fundamental problem is in the religion. Personally I Think a better way to view the situation is that a la the Willie Lynch letter, Iraqi society is definitely suffering from violence, mistrust and a lack of unity, but if it weren't one thing it would be something else. (For example, the split between the Sunni Arabs and the Sunni Kurds suggests that some of the issue is ethnic)

Anonymous said...