By Khaled Abou El Fadl
31 Dec 2014
The Rise of Muslim Puritanism and the Failure of Religious Happiness
It is this introspective imperative that compels me, as a Muslim, to come to terms with the prevalence of a grim reality in many parts of the Muslim world - a reality that has made Islam an instrument for inflicting a great deal of misery on many people.
I must say that as a Muslim, I am intellectually and spiritually committed to the proposition that Islam, as a body of convictional, normative doctrines, makes a positive contribution to the human potential for goodness, and that its contributions are necessary and indispensable. However, at the same time, I am cognizant of the Qur'anic teaching that obligates human beings to bear witness in justice even if against one's own or one's self (Q. 4:135).
As a number of commentators have noted, Islam in the contemporary age is going through a process of vulgarization in which some Muslims, disconnected from their own tradition, construct a coercive and artificial culture that indulges in simultaneous, symbolic displays of apologetics and cruelty. By vulgarization, I mean the recurrence of events that seem to shock the human conscience, or that are contrary to what most people would identify as moral and beautiful.
As I have argued elsewhere, oppressively dehumanizing actions committed by adherents of certain theological orientations within contemporary Islam have contributed to the construction of a stereotyped image of Islamic cultures. Through this stereotyped image, in so many parts of the non-Muslim world, Islam has become associated with cruelty, violence and despotism. It is beyond contention that postcolonial Muslim cultures have been plagued by arid intellectual climates, and by a lack of critical and creative ethical approaches to their inherited tradition, which has greatly hampered the development of the humanistic moral orientations within Islam.
I also think that it is beyond disputation that Islamophobes, with their well-funded machinery dedicated to promoting and disseminating bigotry and racism, have helped to propagate very negative stereotypical images of Islamic cultures, history and beliefs. But the harm done by Islamophobes to the image of Muslims or Islam pales in comparison to the actual suffering and misery inflicted by puritanical Muslims on Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Modern puritanical Islam is rooted in the teachings of Wahhabism, a fanatical and highly intolerant movement that originated in the deserts of Najd, an area that is now part of Saudi Arabia. The movement, founded by Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), was uncompromisingly radical, conservative and militant, especially towards fellow Muslims. The movement considered the Ottomans and their Muslim supporters, as well as Sufi orders, Shi'i sects, and proponents of rationalist orientations within Islam, to be heretical apostates who must repent or be put to death. The movement meted out the same treatment to Muslims who did not follow the strict code of practice adhered to by the Wahhabis.
Relying on its very narrow understanding of orthodoxy, Wahhabism espoused a deep distrust of human subjectivity, creativity and intellectualism, and it banned philosophy, music, dance, romantic poetry and practically all forms of artistic expression. But what started as a marginal movement limited to the hardened desert Arabs of Najd was supported by enormous reserves of oil money and protected by Western powers eager to secure favourable oil concessions, and it eventually spread throughout the Muslim world.
In one respect, modern, Islamic, militant extremism, or what some have come to call jihadi movements, represent a clear failure of religious happiness, especially when such movements take the form of a persistent theology of rage, anger and condemnation. In a piece written some years ago, titled "The Orphans of Modernity," I described the general state of dispossession and alienation felt in so many Muslim cultures due to the invasive and disruptive effects of colonialism and modernity, which severed the ties between Muslims and their inherited, native intellectual and moral traditions - the cumulative historical legacy in which they anchored and also negotiated their sense of distinctive and collective identity.
The colonial and postcolonial eras were periods of numerous social and political upheavals that only exacerbated the sense of alienation and disempowerment felt in most Muslim cultures, as the collective memory of historically anchored institutions, normative categories, and epistemological traditions were dismantled, lost and became extremely difficult to retrieve or reconstruct. Puritanical movements sought to overcome these feelings of displacement and loss of identity, and the resulting sense of disempowerment, by adopting highly reactive modes of thinking that emphasized highly symbolic displays of power, defiance and patriarchy.
Part of the mechanics of purity, absolutism, and efforts at self-empowerment is the production of modes of thinking that may be called fault- and judgment-centred. What I mean are modes of thinking that are preoccupied with the idea that humans have historically failed God, and that because of this failure, they deserve God's wrath and punishment. Muslim puritanism had to place itself in a position to judge the failures of other Muslims and, at the same time, to judge its members' own success or fidelity to God's plans.
To be empowered in such a fashion, puritanism had to assert that it and it alone understood God's straight path, and it had to usurp the domain of judgment and condemnation. Therefore, these puritans saw themselves not only as the people who could see that Muslims had deviated from the righteous path, but also as the possessors of the hope for reconciling with the Divine. From the puritanical point of view, the vast majority of Muslims are responsible for bringing God's wrath and punishment on themselves by deviating from the straight path of the Lord, and they (the puritans) hold the key to resolving any feelings of disempowerment and defeat by bringing about an end to God's wrath. The puritanical mindset is prone to casting feelings of disempowerment and displacement, felt at any particular time, as the result of historical failures that burden subsequent generations with the sins of their forefathers.
Not surprisingly, puritanical movements tend to be unsympathetic to narratives of social suffering because, from the puritan perspective, any current hardship or misery in the Muslim world is simply Muslims' just desert for their impiety and disobedience. This mindset also explains the intolerance of puritanical movements towards co-religionists, who are seen as impious or heretical, and the irreverent and highly selective attitude that puritans exhibit towards the collective, inherited Islamic tradition.
In their most extreme form, these puritanical orientations glorify suicide bombings as a form of sacrificial catharsis that is performed with a sense of deluded heroism. Having despaired of the possibility of happiness on this earth, the suicide bomber sacrifices himself or herself in the belief that his or her own death, and the death of Muslim victims in particular, will help to absolve the umma (the totality of Muslims everywhere) of its failures before God. The bomber focuses on what he or she believes is a life of happiness in the hereafter and believes that any Muslim casualties are part of the necessary price that Muslims must pay as a result of having broken their covenant with God.
The suicide bomber sees himself or herself as a martyr, forcing fellow Muslims to pay the price of resistance, a price that must be paid to earn Divine victory. In many ways, suicide bombing, if religiously motivated, is a total failure of religious happiness. True earthly happiness is imagined to have existed only in a highly idealized historical moment, during which the Prophet and his companions are believed to have founded a utopia in Arabia. Puritans believe that this utopia was lost only after Muslims betrayed God's law and indulged their whims and base desires. Only through pious adherence to God's law will Muslims once again deserve God's grace and victory and become capable of recreating the imagined utopian state in which they enjoyed dignity and justice.
This didactic and mechanistic logic locks Islamic puritanism into a cycle in which the utopian ideal becomes an instrument of judgment and condemnation, while the un-attainability of the ideal creates significant pressure that leads to spiralling frustration and radicalization.
The Sterility of Stereotypical Islamicity
Whether in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iran, puritanical movements do tend to generate a considerable amount of social unhappiness and desolation. Not all puritanical movements resort to suicide bombings or political violence. Furthermore, not all puritanical groups believe that Muslims have no sanctity because they are deserving of God's wrath and punishments.
However, the modalities of thought in puritanical movements have a consistently demoralizing and dehumanizing effect that persistently undermines the possibilities of social and moral happiness, and thus, undermines the very purpose of the Islamic faith. I call these modalities, and the way in which they set forth norms that generate repetitive social consequences, the modalities of pietistic affectations and stereotyped determinations.
Puritanical movements insist on a simple and straightforward premise: if humanity piously follows the straight path set forth by Islam, people will attain the twin goals of well-being and happiness in this life and in the hereafter. In most cases, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of this conviction or the intentions of those who adhere to it. The fact is, however, that the lived experience of puritanical Islam persistently sets in motion processes that invariably lead to social vulgarization and dehumanization. I do not believe that the failures of puritanism are necessarily in its objectives or purposes, but rather, in its modalities of thinking that doom those who fall under the authority or control of puritanical movements to a state of frustration and unhappiness.
What I mean by stereotypical determinations are responses that lock Islamicity within a narrow space of interpretive or constructive possibilities. A stereotyped response is reactive, and to the extent that it affirms a picture of orthodoxy in order to reassert an authoritative image of Islamicity, it is a form of religious affectation. Stereotyped responses assume a narrow view of Islamicity and, then, seek to reproduce this view as an affirmation of orthodoxy within a specific sense of presupposed determinations.
In other words, stereotyped responses are premised on a narrow view of what is truly and authentically Islamic and what is not, and also on the dogmatic exclusion of alternatives. The Islamic intellectual heritage contains many possibilities of creative interpretation, and the Shari'a tradition, in particular, is rich and highly diverse. Stereotyped responses, however, significantly narrow the range of constructive possibilities by restricting potential creative interpretive activity by dogmatically limiting the tools of determination - tools such as text, reason, or custom.
It is much easier, but also dangerous, to deal with life's challenges by identifying the relevant facts, not through sociological and cultural experiences but through a religiously motivated, imaginary construct. Instead of dealing with the full complexity and richness of life and with challenges on their own terms, the religious-imaginary limits what are considered to be the relevant facts in such a way as to avoid having to deal with challenges in the first place. In this situation, life is not experienced and studied in its full richness and diversity; rather, the process of living itself is conceptualized in highly stereotyped forms that have little to do with material culture or lived experience.
Consequently, challenges are not dealt with through a dynamic of systematic analysis, and social problems are not treated from within an exhaustive analytical framework. Instead, the stereotyped forms that are used to respond to challenging facts and difficult problems sustain and perpetuate certain fictions of performance or pietistic affectation. In effect, instead of wrestling with contexts and contingencies, practitioners rely on convenient fictions that allow them to avoid confronting the reality that exists on the ground, and they respond to constructed fictions through stereotypical determinations that affirm, and do not challenge, these constructed fictions.
Stereotyped responses that ignore the nuances of history and life do not just stunt the development of Shari'a as a field of normative discourse; they often stunt the development of serious ethical evaluations, social development of standards of reasonableness, and the cultivation of shared human and humane values. This occurs because practitioners fall into the habit of avoiding the pain of wrestling with uncomfortable facts, and the escape into ready-made dogma acts to dull the intellect and hamper the continual development of a critical sense of moral responsibility.
Archetypal symbolism plays a prominent role in puritanical orientations as an elaborate system of pietistic performances that affirms and perpetuates doctrinally constructed images of genuine Islamicity. Very often, these constructed images are vigorously and irrationally asserted and defended at the cost of a vibrant discursive dynamic that would allow for the critical regeneration and reconstitution of Islamic norms.
Of course, the silencing of alternatives is not something practiced by puritans alone, but the tension between the expectations set by puritans as the bearers of the symbols of Islamicity, and the complex and unyielding reality of Muslim societies, leads to a particular, recognizable dynamic. The gap between the constructed Islamic ideal of the puritan, and the highly contextualized and contingent Islamicity of the average Muslim, creates a challenging and tense situation. Attempts to forcibly impose the constructed Islamic ideal are met by numerous acts of resistance by average Muslims, which often brings puritanical Muslims into full confrontation and conflict with their native societies. Such conflict often leads puritans to ignore the growing gap and friction between the ideal and reality and to adopt pietistic affectations that distil and encapsulate the whole idea of Islamicity into highly symbolic performances of piety.
Since the 1970s there has been enormous growth among movements that emphasize symbolic performances - such as forms of attire, facial hair, smells and perfumes, or specific expressions and phraseology - as representations of genuine Islamicity. Of course, symbolic performances of religiosity are not problematic. What is problematic is when these performances become a form of pietistic affectation that compensates for or conceals social tensions and frustrations.
While stereotyped responses to complex and contingent social realities lead to a great deal of social frustration and unhappiness, pietistic affectation only ignores and conceals the existence of this unhappiness. From the earliest narratives of Islamic history, and to this very day, there have always been believers who find happiness to be a rather uncomfortable subject. To their minds, happiness seems to be an indulgence that does not correlate with the purportedly stern and sombre deliberativeness that is needed to submit to God.
This attitude towards happiness, however, runs afoul of cumulative and redundant historical narratives that portray the Prophet of Islam not only as a joyous, serene and tranquil person, but also as someone who cherished and celebrated happiness. The Qur'an bolsters this impression by emphasizing the importance of happiness to faith in God, and the importance of faith to happiness.
The real issue has always been how one understands submission to God. Submission to God is not simply obedience or servitude to God; submission to God also means aspiring to and seeking the goodness of God, and liberating one's soul and being from a state of godlessness in order to attain a state of Godliness. As numerous Muslim theologians have argued, to grow into and with God's love is the epitome of fulfilment, goodness and happiness. The key that unlocks this process is self-knowledge, knowledge of others and ultimately, knowledge of God. In my view, happiness is possible only if people are free to grow with and into God.
However, when submission becomes a formulaic relationship based not on knowledge, grace and love, but on generalized stereotypes about history, societies and people - indeed, when submission becomes a relationship based on a stereotyped understanding of one's self dealing with a stereotypical understanding of an omnipotent but inaccessible God - unhappiness will become the norm. The achievement of happiness will be something of a miracle.
Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law and Chair of the Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program at UCLA. His magnum opus, Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari'ah in the Modern Age, has just been published.