state of mich

South Asian Traditional Islam vs Western Islam

April 24, 2008 by  


Courtesy “Yursil”

After reading through a number of works discussing South Asian Islamic history, and also many of the references, I have thought a lot more deeply about the traditions of South Asian culture than my last series of posts on this subject. Every time I read the numerous moving stories, I marveled at how totally lost Muslim South Asians, especially expatriates and their children, have become from their traditional past. While the first Masjid in India was built in Kodungallur by Malik Bin Deenar(R), a Sahabi (during the Prophet’s (s) lifetime), it certainly seems that most of what occurred after that point has been forgotten by South Asian Muslims living abroad.

The Islam that I experienced in American South Asian dominated mosques and organizations was so utterly disconnected from the traditional understanding of Islam of India, that without being mentally prepared, I would certainly have considered what I was reading as pure fiction. The attraction of Muslim South Asians in America to various agenda-driven forms of Islam (and their lack of awareness as to their shifted reality by these agendas) has been complete and total. This has made the alien into the norm and the norm into the alien.

The sheer volume of information on the subject of the spirituality, plurality, tolerance and strength of South Asian Muslims, combined with the natural understanding as to how South Asian society flourished with Muslim and Hindu interaction for over the 1400 years, makes it clear that the fiction was that which I was sold most of my youth.

In fact, it was the desire and clearly defined curriculum of organizations such as ICNA and early administrations of the various masjids that I attended (dominated by South Asians at nearly all levels of organization) that Muslim youth study the life and works of Seyyid Qutb, Maududi, and Bilal Phillips.

This created an entire generation (including most of my friends) that had never heard the name of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti (R) much less the name of a single one of the countless saints buried in South Asia. The importance of knowing those names (and therefore, understanding and respecting their teachings) is vitally important for immigrant South Asian Muslims in the West for a proper return to the spiritually moving faith connected to the Prophet (S), as practiced by these holy people who carried Islam to us.

The difference between what has become ‘modern Islam’ and the traditional Islam of South Asia and other traditional Muslim communities is striking.

One is focused on a singular attempt at ‘authenticity’ and ‘purification’ of Islam using new understandings of Hadith and discussing their authenticity, the other is focused on the application of the immediate tradition for the purpose of bettering the soul.

One is focused on the political, absorbing worldly power and doing so with various levels of crassness, looking for religious and legal legitimacy the entire time, while the other has always been about building bridges between hearts with subtlety and care.

The Islam of South Asians in the West has mirrored that of converts. Many converts were in love of the faith of Islam primarily due to its claim of textual authenticity of the Quran (and hence the faith), which was unchanged for centuries. This was in stark comparison to the faiths of the West which suffered from deep questions of relevancy and authenticity, faiths which they had left for just those reasons. There is no doubt that the weight of the extreme desire for textual authenticity led to the ‘off’ switch of South Asian immigrants in examining the Islamic faith as understood by their families for generations.

The lack of textual information about Islam in South Asia certainly did not help. Modern South Asians were brought up appreciating the written word much more than that spoken word, a side effect of making education the largest priority in their lives (a means to escape poverty of the homeland). The idea of following a way of life which couldn’t be immediately checked, verified, and looked up for confirmation led most to the path of various forms of Wahabism.

Of course, most of groups eschewed the name ‘Wahabi’ itself, preferring to claim the title ‘Muslim’ for themselves. Interestingly enough their use of ‘Muslim’ was to the exclusion of their ‘grave worshipping’ ancestors or family members, which they considered to be misguided and confused. Most likely, however, the situation was actually tragically reversed, with modernized South Asians being extremely confused about their faith and the ‘ignorant’ visitors of graves seeing with a spiritual clarity.

Many South Asian parents had not bought into their own intellectual superiority, and hence many had not adopted the Wahabi ideal in order to critique the problems ‘back home’. These parents were quiet on the subjects of question (saints, graves, intercession, etc), and very few had the ability to respond back to the arguments presented by Wahabi philosophies from their children. Growing up their entire lives in that society, it was difficult for parents to forsake that which they had learned was de-facto Islam, an Islam which had run their lives and so many loved-ones lives could not easily be discarded… Saints, Milad, Naats, Qawaali, and all. Largely, they kept their distance from argument and supported the now adjusting faith of their children.

Interestingly enough, this comfortable nature of the different Islam between father and son, mother and daughter, in matters of practice of faith was a direct consequence of the open nature of the parents Islamic faith. It is this same South Asian pluralism which had created large periods of relative peace between Hindus and Muslims over a span of centuries, which now allowed children to look, dress, and act radically different from their parents, with hardly more than a word spoken.

This is not to say that parents did not fear the children would become ‘Christian’ in the West, indeed such fears existed and were a large part of growing up South Asian in the West. However, I would argue the fear towards Christianization was much more focused on the change in culture, and what that would mean for marriage, dress and social standings than what it meant to their soul. The pluralistic values of South Asia centered around a common culture, where often the weddings of the Muslim were not so dissimilar from that of the Hindu, in terms of dress and celebration. Exiting this culture was much more profound an issue than disagreements over details of faith.

After coming to terms with the reality of the rigid nature of a singular interpretation of Islam, the American convert experience, a struggle and challenge in its own right, seemed to need an understanding of how Islam survived with pluralistic flexibility in order to continue and progress in their faith. The first struggle for those espousing a return to the traditional understanding of Islam was to establish authenticity. This was done by focusing on the Madhabs, the schools of Islamic Law. Within these Madhabs lived the intellectual contribution of all Muslim legal scholars for centuries.

However, the reality was that the average South Asian Muslim had never heard of Madhabs in any Islamic sense. Since the overwhelming majority of their society was Hanafi, there was no need to even learn the names of other approaches in matter of form or externals. So, in fact, in American Masjids, it was those espousing “Madhabs” who ended up looking as if they were speaking of something new.

As a completely wayward path, the Wahabi agenda of puritanical groups looking to take over Islam in the West was rebuffed with this larger understanding of Islamic Law. The only escape for American converts from this type of Islam, was a broader understanding of the faith with multiple legal opinions. This has become to be known as “traditionalism”, espoused by famous converts and speakers such as Sh Hamza Yusuf, Imam Zaid Shakir, and Sh Nuh Keller.

However, this following of converts, with their own issues of reconciliation of culture cannot be followed by South Asians descendants who plan on keeping their own culture alive. It seems the South Asian child’s only two choices today are assimilation into three categories: the secular West, the Western Islamic discourse dominated by anti-traditionalists, or the Islamic discourse of Arabized traditionalists. As noted in my previous articles, it is clear that a traditional South Asian Islam has been ignored by the West. Revivalists of traditional sciences in the West have ignored the South Asian contribution for too long.

A focus on historical personalities and works of South Asian descent is a personal priority of mine. It is time the Milad, Ghazal, Naat, and Qawaali was understood and loved again, not simply analyzed through the lens of a protracted argument about good and bad “innovations”.

“That is so 90’s.” It’s time to move on.

10-18

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