Marriage and modernity

Yesterday I finished Wael Hallaq’s Introduction to Islamic Law, which not only does a great job of explaining the classical structures of Shari’a legal reasoning but also mounts an argument that the imposition of modern state structures fundamentally transformed Shari’a law into something that would have been unrecognizable to pre-modern Muslims. This was most striking in his account of the aspect of Shari’a that superficially seems to have escaped unscathed from these changes — namely, family law. The implicit question underlying his argument is why precisely this was what the colonizers and indigenous modernizers “left alone,” and the answer is that maintaining implicit continuity with traditional Shari’a in this area served as cover for an agenda that replaced extended families with the modern nuclear family in Muslim countries.

This got me thinking: why would the modern state have a stake in the nuclear family? And I think the answer is that it is the absolute minimum level of solidarity — a reluctant concession to biological necessity in a society that otherwise wants to turn everyone into an individual monad. If the state endorsed or even tolerated other, more wide-ranging forms of solidarity, then a significant center of loyalty other than the state may arise, potentially undermining the state’s efforts to discipline and control the population and, in particular, opening up the possibility of economic relations not predicated on individualism and competition. Enshrining monogamous marriage and the nuclear family in law has the additional bonus that this minimal concession to community and solidarity owes its existence directly to the state, and so any discussion of how to change this arrangement must necessary be routed through the state.

I wonder if an analogy can be drawn with the rise of gay marriage. Why precisely this form of recognition for gay relationships? As we know, in periods when LGBT people were more marginal, communities structured more like “extended families” arose, which proved particularly important in caring for AIDS patients. Why not formalize the varied forms of relationships that were indigenous to the LGBT community, as opposed to a nuclear family model that few had the resources or inclination to imitate?

If we look at Hallaq’s account of the imposition of the nuclear family on Islamic countries, the reason is clear — gay marriage was a perfect opportunity to undermine the alternative forms of solidarity that had grown up in the LGBT community and a way to incorporate previously recalcitrant populations into the nuclear family model. And for those who are opposed to gay marriage, the struggle against it only serves to emphasize the state’s role in recognizing and supporting their relationships — giving them prestige which is watered down by the inclusion of more people into the system.

Hence I’d say that liberals who claim that gay marriage actually strengthens all marriage are correct, though that’s perhaps not as good a thing as they believe.

Draft syllabus: Intro to Islamic Thought

I have completed a draft syllabus for the Introduction to Islamic Thought elective I’ll be teaching at Shimer this fall. While I still have time to tinker — and I am most open to suggestions on the selections from the Qur’an — I am basically “locked in” on the books I’m using and don’t have the space to add anything into an already crowded syllabus. I hope to offer the course again soon as a way of solidifying my own knowledge, though, so I’d keep any suggestions in mind for future iterations.

One challenge of offering this course at Shimer is the fact that our primary source-only, no-lecture format made it very difficult to work in the necessary background information. Hence I lean on ibn Khaldun to give me background on Bedouin life and on the Caliphate (the excerpts at the beginning and middle of the syllabus, respectively), in addition to treating him as an important thinker in his own right at the end of the course. I am also using extracts from ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, supplemented by a simple timeline to help them get the overall flow of the narrative. At times I sneak the editor or translator’s introductions into the reading assignment as well.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to the various advice threads I’ve posted. You may be hearing from me again in the fall, as I’m planning to propose an elective for the spring semester on the Qur’an. It’s long past time for me to seriously engage with Islam — and even if it didn’t exactly fit with my plans for the summer to develop a course on the topic, I’m glad that Shimer gave me the necessary kick in the pants by assigning me to do it.

Reading the Qur’an for the first time: Scattered impressions

The most difficult part of preparing for my Introduction to Islamic Thought class has not been the task of assembling a list of major thinkers and texts. Though it took some digging and much advice from more experienced teachers and scholars, at the end of the day, there is enough of a “canon” of schools and figures in Islamic thought that I feel reasonably confident my syllabus is, if certainly not perfect, at least adequate in that area. Much more difficult was the task of grappling seriously with the Qur’an for the first time. It is not much longer than the New Testament, but it is a profoundly unwieldy text — the surahs (chapters) are arranged in approximate reverse order of length, so that they seem to be in completely random order; their titles most often refer to a single isolated detail in the surah, so that the table of contents gives the reader almost no guidance; and it is frankly incredibly repetitive and hence difficult to plow through, even for a seasoned reader of tedious texts (viz., patristics) such as myself.

Now, however, I have gotten through it, and so I thought I’d write up my initial thoughts, if only to preserve them for myself.

Read the rest of this entry »

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The imitation of Muhammad

Yesterday I remarked on Twitter that the imitation of Muhammad seems to be much more important for Muslims than the imitation of Christ is for Christians. My wording was exaggerated, suggesting that Christians are opposed to imitating Christ — though I would maintain that for many conservative Christians, that is obviously the case (theologically, not because they’re bad people, etc.) — and so I thought I’d write the blog post I should have written in the first place.

In my study of Islam so far, it’s striking how much people try to model their lives after Muhammad. There are thousands upon thousands of anecdotes and quotations, called hadith, that ostensibly give insight into these topics (and Muslims are well aware that they are of varying levels of reliability). In the early centuries, people would travel hundreds of miles to find new hadith, and collecting and assessing them became a fine art — which then became the basis for the development of Shari’a law.

Even if some of the hadith are not authentic or fully accurate, it remains the case that there is a lot more you can know about Muhammad’s life than about Jesus’. We have reliable information about Muhammad’s appearance, his dress, the way he cut his facial hair, his daily habits (such as using a toothpick), etc. In part, this is simply because Muhammad was much more “important” in a straightforward sense during his lifetime — he was the leader of a powerful community that was on its way to taking over much of the known world by the time he died.

Yet there’s a theological reason as well. It is important to Christian theology that Jesus became “really human,” but the emphasis there was on confirming his functional role in enabling humanity to be saved. His moral example was always secondary, and when it is emphasized, it’s incredibly vague: “love one another,” “be humble,” “sacrifice for one another,” “be willing to die for your faith.”

This is simply not at the level of concreteness of Muhammad’s toothpick. It’s not the same kind of thing. In fact, I would claim that you don’t need Jesus to know the moral principles that his example supposedly provides. We already knew that love was a good thing before Jesus came around. Judaism had already developed the concept of martyrdom.

I would even go a step further and say that there’s a theological reason that we don’t have the same kind of concrete information about Jesus that we do about Muhammad. It’s not simply a contingent fact that the earliest Christian writings, the epistles of Paul, are devoid of any information about Christ except for his death and resurrection — and that the gospels devote most of their time to those topics, while providing very little in the way of imitatable detail. (It’s not like we’re going to make it a general principle to miraculously multiply a small amount of food when confronted with a huge crowd, for instance.) Even in places where Jesus isn’t clearly divine, he’s still an exceptional person with a unique mission. All the Gospels are at pains to show that no one really understood his importance when he was alive, even his closest associates. Those same apostles, who presumably observed Jesus very closely when traveling with him (and again, are we going to make it a norm that everyone has to be a celibate itinerant preacher?), only become truly effective as part of his mission once they receive a share of the divine power in the form of the Holy Spirit.

It can’t be a matter of reading off a pattern of life from a flesh-and-blood human being in the case of Jesus. That’s just not how it works. That’s not the kind of figure he is in Christian theological terms, and what little we know about his lifestyle does not seem to provide a formula for an enduring, large-scale society like Islam became. And to be clear, I’m not accusing Christians of hypocrisy or implying that things would be better if only they’d followed Jesus’ example. There’s just not much usable material in the concrete facts of Jesus’ example. Indeed, once serious research into the “historical Jesus” began, it was only a short time before the most rigorous scholars concluded that the life of Jesus was basically irrelevant to contemporary concerns, particularly the liberal project that his example is most often invoked to support.

So yes, I am aware that there’s a book called The Imitation of Christ and that people throw that phrase around — but that’s about super-charging general moral principles with religious significance, not about figuring out how to model every aspect of your daily life around the habits of a guy named Jesus of Nazareth. The Islamic stance toward the figure of Muhammad is fundamentally different and is more accurately called “imitation” than the devotional practices that go under the title of “imitation of Christ” in Christian circles.

To repeat again, though — I’m not trying to deride Christianity or claim that Islam lives up to a Christian principle better than Christians. They’re two different approaches to two very different founding figures, and it’s not clear to me that either has delivered uniformly positive or uniformly negative concrete results.

Progress on my Islamic thought course

I’ve been making slow and steady progress on developing my course in Islamic thought for the fall. I’m starting to see that one of the benefits of Shimer’s text-centered approach is that it makes room for professors to be more exploratory in their course offerings. After all, it’s not as though I need to be writing authoritative lectures every day — as long as I can be confident that I’ve picked texts that are broadly representative of important trends and widely recognized as being among the most exemplary achievements in Islamic thought, we should be okay. At the same time, the requirement to use primary texts does present a particular challenge for non-Western topics, because I can’t assume the broad (if vague) familiarity most American students would have with the background of most of the relevant historical periods, etc.

Right now I know I need to devote a significant chunk at the beginning to Muhammad and the Qur’an. I am planning to use some supplemental contemporary articles here, particularly on issues relating to women. For background, I’m considering trying ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, along with selected hadith. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get through the whole Qur’an or if that should even be a priority.

A second unit that I had in mind from the start was on Islamic legal reasoning. It’s a big topic and could perhaps make a good course on its own (maybe paired with rabbinic legal reasoning?). I’m currently inclined to skip it unless I can find an accessible anthology of major original thinkers in Shari’a law — something like that would be the biggest recommendation I would hope for in comments.

Either way, I’d conclude with a kind of “greatest hits” of the Big Names in Islamic Thought: al-Arabi, al-Ghazali (particularly Deliverance from Error, which seems like the nearest equivalent of Augustine’s Confessions), ibn-Sina, ibn-Rushd, ibn-Khaldun. A colleague gave me a copy of ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan, which seems like a fun text to include. Fitting in some Rumi might be nice — in general I’m not as sure of footing on Sufi mysticism. I feel like I have good leads kalam and Islamic philosophy, but I’d be grateful for further suggestions, particularly from people who have actually taught the primary texts.

Including women will be a challenge. I’ve been in dialogue with Laleh Bakhtiar of Kazi Publishing in Chicago, who has been very generous with review copies and has a translation of the Qur’an that I may use. I’m already planning to highlight “women’s issues,” and I can emphasize the role of Muhammad’s wives in early Islamic politics, etc., but it’d be nice to find at least something like a woman Sufi saint’s biography or her own writings.

I invite suggestions and criticisms!

Islam course idea

As I work on my Islam course for the fall, it occurs to me that I’ll likely have more material than I can use in one course. Hence, I’m pondering the idea of proposing another Islam-related elective for the spring semester as well, which would have the added benefit of helping me solidify my own preliminary grasp on Islamic thought. I’ve thought especially about something like the Qur’an and the Bible, and more recently about something comparing St. Paul and Muhammed. What do you think, readers? Does any of this sound plausible, particularly that last idea?

Two New Journals

As I continue to think through my responses to the excellent latest posts on A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature, I thought that I should point readers to two new journal ventures. The first is a reviews journal that comes out of the Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World.

The other is a student-run journal coming out of UWO’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism. The journal, named Chiasma, features a number of strong articles touching on themes that AUFS readers will be interested in (the range present between Eileen Joy’s article on hope and Roland Boer’s discussion of Kautsky speaks to the openness of the journal’s focus). Of special interest, however, may be the two articles on Laruelle (one that connects his work up with Audre Lorde) and a short piece by Laruelle himself on deconstruction.

Also, as a side note, NDPR just posted a very strong review of Principles of Non-Philosophy(translated by Nicola Rubczak and myself).

Posted in Islam, Laruelle. Comments Off

A hypothetical course on Islam

Let’s say, just in theory, that a friend of mine were to be assigned to teach an introductory course on Islamic thought at a college with a discussion-centric pedagogy based on primary texts. Let’s say further that this friend of mine wants to strike a balance between Islamic scripture, legal reasoning, philosophy, art, and literature — perhaps capping off the course with a modern novel in an Islamic setting. What would you recommend to this completely hypothetical person?

On the Muslim question

i recently read Anne Norton’s On the Muslim Question (Princeton 2013), and thought i’d post some quick comments. A friend over last night to watch Seven Psychopaths and play a few rounds of dutch blitz noticed the book lying on the table and asked, “so what’s the answer?” What is the answer to the Muslim question? “All of the above,” I replied. “Yes to all of the above forms of life.” And like Colin Farrell in the film, a screenwriter who wants to make a life-affirming movie about carnage and destruction (serial killer serial killers), the book works through scenes of torture and drones and state terror to urge us finally to recognize what is already happening all around us. Not “war is over, if you want it”, because of course there is and will ever be conflict, but “snow removal and garbage collection, if you want it”. Norton argues that the figure of the Muslim today, much like the figure of the Jew earlier, is where a host of Western anxieties converge — anxieties about democracy, secularism, sexuality, equality, freedom. Yet these anxieties have less to do with Muslims per se than with problematics internal to the West and its history. And so Norton in elegant prose lays out just how unexceptional Muslims are. (How terrible that this is itself an achievement.) These are questions of living together, and people every day work out how to do so. She concludes:

Knowing these things, I see the Muslim question as the Jewish question of our time: standing at the site where politics and ethics, philosophy and theology meet. This is the knot where the politics of class, sex, and sexuality, of culture, race, and ethnicity are entangled; the site where structures of hierarchy and subordination are anchored. It is here, on this terrain, that the question of the democratic — its resurgence or further repression — is being fought out. (228)

And in this demonstration, for me as for others, there is a sort of relief. It means that the burden of these questions is not inexorable. It means they can be shared — with you, between us.

Almost the opposite strategy was offered by Martha Nussbaum in last year’s The New Religious Intolerance (Harvard). Read the rest of this entry »

Miracle and Machine/Islam

Philosophy (and philosophy of religion) no less than other disciplines today remains immune from Islam and the questions of Islam. (Islamic studies mirrors this, for all its contemporary heat and funding, in maintaining its textualist heritage against the vapid enthusiasm for “interdisciplinarity” bursting from the other humanities.) Thus Islam appears in philosophy for the most part either as a cipher for religion-as/and-politics (that is, a cipher for danger) or as a recourse to gain critical distance for one’s argument. We can offer various hypotheses about this limit, but remarkable here is that Derrida follows neither of these courses, trying also to avoid the temptation of taking Islam as “available” to his arguments. Thus Islam is introduced in “Faith and Knowledge” under the question of the name (Islam, or a certain Islam, what passes for Islam today, or what speaks in the name of Islam). Islam is “clearly not just one religion among others in the current debates about the fate or place of religion” (25). Yet when Derrida looked across the conference table at Capri almost two decades ago, he saw (only) European men. “No Muslim is among us, alas, even for this preliminary discussion, just at the moment when it is toward Islam, perhaps, that we ought to begin by turning our attention” (§5). The references to Islam that follow in the rest of the essay through Miracle and Machine - undermining the confidence of translation, figuring the risk of democracy, attacking the right to literature, possessing a global “prerogative” to the question of religion - should be read in the melancholic light of this observation. Read the rest of this entry »


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