17 August 2007

Madness in their Method

We said to Moses: "Throw down your staff;" and it swallowed up their conjurations in no time. Thus the truth was upheld, and the falsehood that they practised was exposed. — al-Qur'an, 7: 117,118, trans. Ahmed Ali
At 21, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross was a left-leaning undergrad at Wake Forest University, the child of non-observant Jews who had converted to Joel Goldsmith's Infinite Way. At 23, he was, in his words, "a devout believer in radical Islam" working for Al-Haramain, a Wahhabi-funded charity that smuggled funds to al-Qaeda. His is a story of seduction, not by a woman, but by a religious sect that recruited his reasoning ability to overcome his moral sense. It is a cautionary tale for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, a psychological self-investigation, and a love story.

It seems that Daveed had been seeking a more structured theology than offered by the religion of his parents. His grandfather's death and his own experiences of life-threatening illness added urgency to his quest. We hear no answers from his parents' original Judaism or the Infinite Way. We witness clumsy attempts at evangelism by Daveed's Christian friends (too much structure for him at the time perhaps). At last, Daveed finds comfort with the "progressive" Islam of a Naqshbandi Sufi classmate named al-Husein. We also see that Daveed is seeking community: classmate al-Husein becomes his spiritual brother, and the community of believers (the ummah) his extended spiritual family.

Becoming a Muslim is easy: Daveed recites the shahadah (the profession of faith) in front of two Muslim witnesses. Becoming a good Muslim, however, requires learning. One must learn wudu (the proper way to wash before prayer), salat (the choreography of postures for ritual prayer), and of course, Arabic (the language of salat), with an emphasis on taweed (the proper pronunciation for reciting the Qur'an). All this is not even the barest minumum. One can go much further: the life, words, and actions of the Prophet Muhammad are far more extensively documented than any previous religious leader on earth. To an extent that varies among the branches of Islam, these are taken to be exemplary for a proper Muslim life. An observant Muslim can spend a lifetime perfecting his or her practice of Islam. Islam strikes a balance between orthopraxy (doing things right), and orthodoxy (believing the right things) that is tilted more toward the former than in, say, Western Christianity.

Daveed decides to work for a year between college and law school, and takes a job at the Islamic center in his hometown, where he can live with his parents while saving some money. Daveed needs instruction from more experienced and learned Muslims. The mosque he works for is funded by the aforementioned Wahhabi charity, and run by American salafists who are eager to teach. His radicalization has begun.

Daveed is not allowed to have his own opinions on matters of Islamic practice. How can he? He is new to Islam, and prone to confuse correct practice with his own foreign ideas. His employer and co-workers correct him one behavior at a time. One day, they tell him his pants are too long, another that he must not wear silk, yet another that he must not touch a dog or a woman to whom he is not married. They get him to accept that his own judgement is faulty — his ignorance of things Islamic allows his judgment to be contaminated by his will, which is as yet incompletely submitted to Allah. He begins to accept that the only remedy is to strive for complete submission, which he can achieve by learning all the rules to which he must submit. Each correction consists of a verbal admonishment, a reference to the Qur'an and/or a hadith, and an article or book to read on the subject, by a suitable (salafist) Islamic authority. Is is backed up only by forces of social pressure to conform, and the apparently self-evident logic of the salafist method of determining correctness.

To determine what is correct, the salafists proceed logically — scientifically, they maintain. Who should know what is correct better than the Prophet and his Companions? Thus one consults the Qur'an, which interprets itself. To understand one verse, one need only compare it with others that contain the same word, phrase, or concept. If clarity is still lacking, one may consult the ahadith — the collected sayings of the Prophet. No other sources of information or ways of knowing are allowed, because they are potentially corrupted and unreliable. This is the salafist method of interpreting their texts — the salafist hermeneutic. If the correct course is still unclear, they consults somone more practiced at this hermeneutic — recognized (meaning salafist) Islamic scholar of Qur'an, ahadith and sharia (Islamic Law).

Daveed is becoming more ill-at-ease as his Islam "improves." But he feels he can't talk about his unease with his parents or his liberal Christian girlfriend. The one person with whom he could have unburdened himself, al-Husein, is undergoing his own radicalization. Daveed is alone and unhappy, but unable to overcome the logic of the salafists that is superficially so airtight. He finds himself praying for the success of the salafist mujahideen (fighters) against his own civilization. When the year ends, Daveed goes away to law school in the fall of 1999, and grows away from radical Islam. He eventually leaves Islam altogether (despite the death penalty that salafists believe must be visited on apostates), converts to Christianity, and marries his girlfriend. After the shock of 9/11, he discovers that al-Haramain had smuggled money to al-Qaeda, and begins a career as a counter-terrorism consultant.

The book, in much greater detail than the thumbnail sketch above, takes you on Daveed's journey into and out of Islamic radicalism. He details the techniques of what is essentially a form of brainwashing. In this, Daveed has made a valuable contribution to the literature on radical Islam. But he does not provide details on how one might resist such techniques. He does not deconstruct salafism and the line of argument it makes for itself. In the language of Harry Potter, he provides no lessons in Defense Against the Dark Arts of salafism.

For example, let's examine salafism's basic premise: We can restore the pure practice of Islam by imitating the salafs, the Prophet and his Companions. Can we really know in detail what Islamic practice was like during the Prophet's prophethood? The salafist answer is yes, we have the Qur'an and the ahadith. All else is unreliable and corrupt.

There are good theological reasons to believe that a wooden, literal imitation of the salafs was neither their nor God's intention, but let's be generous. Let's accept that idea for the moment in order to question their method. Can we rely only on the Qur'an and the ahadith and nothing else? I must first point out the obvious truth that any reading of any text always involves at least two acts of interpretation — the author must interpret from the author's mental processes or imagery into written language, and the reader must interpret from symbols on a page into the reader's mental imagery. When it comes to the Qur'an and the ahadith, these two acts of interpretation, writing and reading, are separated by 1400 years, and sometimes thousands of miles. Meanings can change, and the cultural context which could preserve the meaning can be lost.

In English, for example, the word "prevent" in the King James Bible meant "precede," i.e., to go before, in the Elizabethan English in which the King James translation was written. It would be surprising if there were not comparable instances of meaning alteration between classical and modern Arabic. As for context, consider that 1400 years from now the average English (or successor language) speaker will probably not know the difference between our current words "outhouse," and "outbuilding." A future context of ubiquitous indoor plumbing may erase an ancient cultural context of outdoor privies.

Now the Qur'an and the ahadith assume, but do not explicitly state the details and cultural context of their times — which everybody knew in the Arabia of 1400 years ago. Everybody knew the context of each Qur'anic verse as it was revealed and spoken to them by the Prophet himself. Moreover, the ahadith are collections not of narratives, but of disjointed fragments of individual memory, as in "Ibn Abbas said, 'The prophet (pbuh) made circuits of the House riding on a camel, and every time he came to the Corner, he made a sign with something that he had with him and said, Allahu Akbar" (Bukhari 25:61, trans. Muhammad Ali, A Manual of Hadith, 1941, p196).

So, since we must interpret texts whose meanings may have changed and whose cultural context is no longer entire, we must employ some principles of interpretation ( hermeneutics) to minimize our errors. We could use rigorous historical, cultural, linguistic and anthropological research, to recover as much context and to infer as much meaning from that context as possible. But this is rejected by the salafists, who insist that the Qur'an interprets itself, that when it doesn't they use the ahadith, and that when these fail, they can turn to one of their own who is "rightly guided." Sorry, but this amounts to retrojecting (projecting backwards) the salafists' current customs, practices, and prejudices into their interpretation of the texts. To accept the salafists' hermeneutic is to abandon critical thinking — to open oneself to believing anything, whether it is true or not.

The salafists' insistence on abandoning critical thought has two consequences: first, it materially disadvantages Islamic cultures in this world. Consider that when Islamic temporal power was rising, its politics were dominated by the "Mutazilites, who sought to combine faith and reason," according to Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy (Physics Today, August 2007, p49). But, he continues, a "resurgent religious orthodoxy" eventually overcame them, and led to decline. Today, the scientific output of the entire Islamic world (which led science during the European Middle Ages) is less than that of Brazil. Here I use scientific output as a surrogate for the popular acceptance of critical thinking. In short, the salafists' basic premise is wrong, and they have made Muslims suffer for it.

Second, the salafist abandonment of critical thought corrupts Muslim minds to the point that many Muslims will believe any lie about their chosen enemies as long as it flatters their egos by conforming to their prejudices. For example, when asked what the Talmud is, Daveed is cut short by one of his co-workers who claims it is "the Jews' plan to ruin everything." Apparently, the co-worker had confused the Talmud with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is famous for being a heinous and long-exposed forgery. Would the co-worker be embarassed to know that the Talmud is actually the record of several hundred years of scholarly debate about the halacha (Jewish religious law), which plays the same role in Judaism as sharia does in Islam? Would he be receptive to the idea that the correspondence between the Hebrew halacha and Arabic halal (that which is permitted under sharia) is not accidental? This willingness to believe that which is well-known to be demonstrably false makes such Muslims look backward and foolish in the eyes of the non-Muslim world, which brings shame upon the religion of Islam. Such is the rationalist argument against the salafist method of interpretation.

There is also a literary argument against the salafist method of interpretation. Any good poem, play, or narrative transcends the time and place of its authorship by being pregnant with more meaning than its mere words can carry to any given audience. It evokes fresh insights to successive audiences as the historical development of their culture proceeds. If this is true of mere human creations, how much more must it be true of Divinely Inspired literature? Indeed, the Qur'an was viewed as literature as it was being revealed — one argument for its authenticity was that the power and beauty of its prose and poetry was beyond the capabilities of Muhammad, who was illiterate. The salafist hermeneutic, on on the other hand, does not allow the full imaginative encounter with the Qur'an necessary for it to reveal ever deeper insights as persons and cultures mature. In a manner of speaking, the salafist hermenutic is a case of arrested religious, psychological and cultural development.

In particular, the salafists confabulalate what they uncritically imagine to be seventh-century Arab culture with the universal Religion of Islam. In this, they contaminate Islam with their own bida (innovation), rather than search Islam honestly with their whole minds and souls. And they do this to achieve certainty that they are doing the right things, and thus that they are right with God. But their certainty is not won — it is stolen from their texts. So great is their hunger for certainty that they steal it from their stunted interpretation of the Qur'an and the ahadith, because ultimately, they can't bring themselves to risk trusting the living God.

One cannot fault Daveed Gartenstein-Ross for failing to cut the salafist knot with this particular sword of reason, however. He was young and inexperienced, which made him open-minded. They know a lot about Islam, so let's try to see how they understand things, he must have thought, at least pre-consciously. His willingness to try new things, to attempt understanding by going a little way along another's path — the "tolerance" that we so value in the West and which is so opposite to salafist thought — is what made him vulnerable to being co-opted by the salafists. Tolerance and open-mindedness are good and necessary both for civil society and honest faith, but they can be abused.

Moreover, even if Daveed could have voiced such thoughts as those above, it would have had no effect on the salafists surrounding him. They need to maintain their stolen certainty that they earn God's Love by conforming to their rules. Arguments like those above would have been dismissed, and corrected by the same methods — more of the same stunted hermeneutic as before. These arguments are not for the salafists, but for those either resisting or leaving salafism or any other religious fundamentalism. That is to say, Muslims might consider that Christian and Jewish fundamentalists use the same hermeneutic as Islamic fundamentalists. They just apply it to different texts.

And the results are more or less the same. Fundamentalists of all religions confine God's infinite well-spring of meaning to a box no bigger than their imaginations. Their own superficial reasoning from this small box then negates the moral sense that God planted in them. After that, they can rationalize any action they need to maintain their world view, which is the source of their sense of their own goodness — anything from assassination to the mass slaughter of innocents. This is the ethical argument against the salafist hermeneutic. To invert a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet, though this be method, yet there is madness in it.

There are other arguments against the the fundamentalist hermeneutic and their idolatry of the rule book, but ultimately the decision to resist or leave salafism or any other religious fundamentalism goes beyond merely rational arguments. The other major thing one notices about Daveed's narrative is the absence of spirituality during his al-Haramain period. I think Daveed left fundamentalism because he was homesick for God.

I suspect that homesickness for God may even be driving the more militant salafists (such as al-Qaeda and the like) to violence. If they can just get rid of the rest of us, if they can just eliminate our noisy interference, they will be able to tune into God clearly, and feel finally at home. To further this they not only fight, but (to use Irshad Manji's term) they colonize in order to dominate — the Muslim world, and the Muslim disapora in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America — by targeted application of charitable funds and personnel to set up and maintain madrassas (Islamic religious schools), charities, news media, and so on.

What Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has given us is a vivid and personal account of how Islamists colonize. How to stop them is up to the rest of the honest, thinking world — Muslims and non-Muslims, together.

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