Every new social, religious, political movement in history goes through various stages. And although the sequence and variation of these stages are unique for every movement, parallels and repetitions do occur, making it vital for us to study history and be mindful of the mistakes of the past. Being far from any level of historic expertise, I, nonetheless, cannot help but experience déjà vu as I observe the life and development of Islamic communities.
The first highly disturbing yet very prominent trend can be characterized as ‘The Islamic Era of Stagnation”, as it has unknowingly borrowed many of its’ features from the Soviet Era of Stagnation. The latter was a result of gradual loss of the original ideological essence of the movement, separation from what has caused it in the first place, loss of genuine motivation and replacement of sincere struggle of those who had faith in it with empty slogans emanating from the mouths of bureaucrats, opportunists and those who have simply adopted to the new ways of climbing to the top of the social ladder. People used to carry the posters with the outdated and oftentimes nonsensical slogans which no one truly cared about, including those who composed them; the value and status of a person was determined by how much he is willing to comply, march along, and promote the very same slogans and mottos, and even the works of art had to obey all the same shallow formulas, or else they risked to stay forever unrecognized. Needless to say, such developments have led to gradual disintegration and collapse of one of the world’s superpowers.
And so, today, looking at our communities I can’t help but wonder: have the fourteen centuries of development of the Islamic thought only served our ability to operate a rich set of sophisticated cliché and slogans? Do we even have anything that can be genuinely considered to be Islamic thought, Islamic art, Islamic culture or Islamic revolutionary movement, or is it, instead, Islamic plagiarism and propaganda competitions? Are we working for the ideals we have, or to satisfy the wishes and tastes of local community elites, so that we too could find our place in the superficial hierarchy? Indeed, whereas a thinker is supposed to be decades and centuries ahead of his people, our “inspirational figures” are usually called such only because they have satisfied the mindsets of the most backwards layers of the society. If one talks about “standing for justice”, a part of the community will consider him an activist. If one discusses “taboo topics” and “social stigmas” , he may be deemed progressive by some. If one rhymes words ending with “-ation”, he may become a spoken word artist in the eyes of a small community, and putting together the names of Ahlul-Bayt(sa) with words like “pearl”, “rose”, “light”, “stranger” may give one a fame of a poet among those who understand nothing in poetry. In fact, these days poets can apparently be inspired by competitions and material prizes – I wonder which muse visits them for such a small wage?
We have mastered serving Islam to the narrow-minded, uneducated masses. We have mastered blowing fanfares, singing duty odes and decorating our speech with sophisticated terms. But what about intellectuals? What about genuine artists and thinkers? As long as Islamic thought, Islamic art, and Islamic movements overall are inferior to what has been produced before Islam, it does not matter how strong our theological, philosophical and scholarly base is.
Yes, the Islamic world had at some point been deprived of access to technological and scientific know-hows and starting from zero was the only option. Yet, we have never been barred from the intellectual and cultural heights of other nations, save alone our own, and so we shouldn’t imagine that we could produce anything worthy without studying and appreciating what is already there.
We have confused the means and ends: becoming familiar with Islamic teachings, personalities and rules is not the peak of aspirations or even an achievement until one uses these fundamental principles and directions to develop and build upon. Speaking about the revolution and its’ leader is of no use if the goals if that revolution have been forgotten. Quoting the leader continuously on the issue of “the plots of enemies” and missing out on all the other subjects he emphasizes only shows the desires and the limited vision of those who keep insisting on such filtering. The truth is that we cannot stay plebeians while claiming to be the followers of such highly educated, refined and broad-minded individuals. We cannot toss around moral anecdotes and yet exhibit the level of integrity which is lower than that of a non-Muslim alcoholic, speaking about ethics as a set of social behavior rules and not refinement of the soul.
The ultimatum of our time does not favor mediocre mindsets, the mindsets of slaves and consumers: we either create a competitive, rich and respectable culture or vanish as many similar communities did before. To be clear, I don’t mean that Islam will vanish or stop growing and developing. Rather, we, as a community will vanish from the Islamic history and leave it for others, unknown to us, to develop.
Speaking about having rich foundations and using them as trophies and slogans rather than building upon them, I can now mention a second disturbing trend: modern-day Pharisees. The word “Pharisees”, according to what can be gathered from the Biblical narratives, as well as classic literature, refers to a group that existed in Judaism before the arrival of Jesus(sa). The narratives may or may not be historically accurate, yet they still contain an important lesson:
Pharisees emerged from the middle and lower classes of Jewish population, held the right beliefs, knew, maintained and strictly observed the religious rulings in the most detailed way. But they missed one thing: the essence of faith. Their strict observance did nothing to reform their hearts and led them towards decay instead of spiritual reformation; their beliefs have not prevented them from eventually opposing the prophet of God and his mission. They were as religious and as observant as one can be, but they lacked faith, sincerity, and the fruits of genuine religious observance, such as humility, compassion, kindness and integrity.
And so, as we keep up with all the intensive activism, let us not lose sight of the original ideals of spiritual purity or confuse the means with the goals. Islam is the way, but knowing the way is not the end. Paths exist to be walked upon, not to be admired, praised, described and advertised. No Islamophobic rhetoric would have any weight if it was directed towards a nation of competitive intellectuals, well-educated and culturally refined youth, independent thinkers, genuine and well-developed talents and individuals with high cultural and moral standards. But If we don’t keep libraries in our houses, we should expect libraries of Islamophobic literature to be written. If we easily attack the honor of fellow Muslims or search for sensational faults in the lives of strangers or even the dead, we should not be surprised that our entire nation is subject to mockery, shaming and misrepresentation. What goes around, comes around, be it on a personal or collective level.
Author: Amina Sadr