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Political Theology and Islamic Studies Symposium: Religion of Critique: Out of the Sources of Islam

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Omar Shaukat is a PhD Candidate in Philosophical Theology at the University of Virginia. While writing his dissertation on Ontotheology and Kant’s conception of self-consciousness, he maintains active academic and teaching interests in topics such as Liberation Theology, South Asian Islam and Film Studies. Email: os4k at virginia dot edu

Religion of Critique: Out of the Sources of Islam[i]

In what follows, my aim is to argue – the stronger version of the thesis of postsecularity, concomitant to any discussion of political theology[ii] – that there is no strict separation between religion/theology/church/mosque and politics/secular/state/nation by way of deliberating on the possibility of an immanent Islamic critique. This thesis of postsecularity does not assert that we have varying amounts of religion mixed in with different amounts of politics,[iii] for that still conceives religion and politics as two separate concepts. Rather, it asserts that the categories of “religion” and “politics,” supposedly marking two distinct and oppositionally defined concepts, are incoherent to begin with, and should be dispensed[iv] with altogether.[v]

I suspect most scholars of religion will agree with me,[vi] and so will those familiar with the claim that Islam is a complete way of life. Nonetheless, there are those who disagree. And some of them object by asserting that critique is an inherently secular enterprise. The development of the discussion over this objection is not important for us.[vii] What is important is that given the vituperative tenor of a recent journal issue,[viii] the postsecularity thesis is set to be disputed through a detailed examination of the idea of critique. The challenge issued by the contributors turns on the claim (amongst others) that one can never get past the secular because “secularization is unfinishable by its very terms as a historical project.”[ix] And what is behind this objection is a particular conception of “secular criticism,”[x] derived from the work Edward Said, that led Stathis Gourgouris, in an earlier exchange, to contend that not only is critique secular but also that “if the secular imagination ceases to seek and to enact critique, it ceases to be secular.”[xi] It is this contention, the equation between secularity[xii] and critique, that I want to challenge. If it can be shown that the central features of secular criticism, at least as described by Gourgouris, are shared by what might be called an Islamic critique, then the distinction between the religious and the secular will once again become tenuous. However, I should also be clear that it is not possible for me offer anything more than brief notes. Therefore, like Irfan Ahmad, I only hope to describe a few Islamic gestures that might contribute towards the “outline of immanent critique in Islamic traditions.”[xiii]

The first point to be noted about Gourgouris’s conception of critique is that it is necessarily self-directed. This is evident in his description of secular criticism as an attempt to detranscendentalize the secular. That is why, in order to find convergences between his conception of critique and an Islamic critique, the latter must be formulated as immanent critique – that is to say, Islam against Islam. And two concepts that immediately stand out as helpful in this regard, of course, are the (much maligned) ideas of bidʿa (innovation) and takfīr (charge of unbelief). Despite the recent negative attention these concepts have received, it is important that they are seen as the raw materials out of which a dialectical history of Islam is constructed. One way in which we might become less averse to understanding them as tools of immanent critique is that we read them in conjunction with another longstanding Islamic idea, the notion of renewal (tajdīd). Grounded in the popular ḥadīth which states that at the beginning of every century God will raise a man who will renew the religion, this is another concept that has provided Muslims with the idea that a dialectical approach to Islam is necessary for Islam to remain a “living” religion.[xiv] What these concepts get at is not only that any proper practice of Islam is projduced in contradistinction to improper practices of Islam, but also that, that which is proper in one context might not be proper in another. Or, what is construed as orthodoxy at one instance might itself be both, the subject and the object of transformation at another instance. Thus, it is entirely possible that al-Ghazali’s invectives against the scholars of his time, with which he begins his monumental work of revivifying (or renewing) Islam, are read as an, in Gourgouris’ words, “(self-)interrogative engagement with the social-historical,”[xv] especially when it is remembered that his critique of others can never be separated from the self-critique of his autobiographical reflections.

Yet, it might be objected that Gourgouris’ notion of self-critique is much more extreme. He attacks the very idea of transcendence, the supposed sine qua non of religiosity. As he has already argued in multiple places,[xvi] the point of secular criticism is to realize that everything is a human creation. That human reality “has no ground other than itself, which is why whatever ‘it’ is, it derives its capacity to be from its phantasmatic propensity to imagine, create, and realize what we call historical realities.”[xvii] In other words, secular criticism is another name for the recognition that the roots of human creativity do not reside in something other than human, the human is what grounds the humanly. Thus, the real question that needs to be answered in comparing secular criticism with an immanent Islamic critique is as follows – are there resources in history of Islam that suggest that humanity “has no ground other than itself?”

There are multiple ways to respond to this question. And since the question is, above all, an ontological question, it would be best to begin by engaging with its incoherent sense of transcendence (and heteronomy/autonomy),[xviii] predicated as it is in drawing a strict separation between transcendence and immanence rather than viewing the former as one kind of relation-of-difference that is constituted by and constitutes the latter kind of relation-of-difference. However, that would carry us far away from a discussion grounded in the Islamic archive. Therefore, for now, I will merely gesture at how the Islamic monotheistic God is never something totally other than the self. In other words, though God might be understood as the other-than-human grounds of the human, seemingly implied by the Qur’anic idea of God blowing His spirit (ruḥ) into the human, the same “entity” is also entirely wrapped with the (human-)self, again suggested by the parallel Qur’anic idea of God being closer to a human than her own jugular vein. This is not to suggest that any (Islamic) metaphysics of creation cannot posit God as logically, temporally or metaphysically independent of and/or prior to the human self. Rather, the idea is that within some Islamic imaginaries, finding the ground of humanity is not finding a heteronomous source of signification. Instead, to find God is the same as finding the self and it is only by finding the self that one finds God. Muhammad Iqbal’s exploration of the self is only one such imaginary,[xix] held in place by the popular ḥadīth which informs the Muslim subject that to know oneself is to know its Lord.

Another way to approach this issue would be appreciate how certain Islamic conceptions of dreams complicate the binary views of transcendence/heteronomy and immanence/autonomy. Not only do we find the idea that dreams are a vehicle of prophecy, or that Muhammad’s first interaction with Gabriel was preceded by true visions, thereby issuing a challenge to the suggestion that dreams and visions are projections of the mere self,[xx] but more interestingly, this is a further coincidence of the transcendent with the immanent such that they cannot be easily distinguished. The most significant upshot of this is that the experience of the transcendent is judged (or critiqued) in terms of the immanent. Not only is the piety of the seer a measure of the vision’s veracity but also Muhammad, the prophet himself, is assured by his wife[xxi] that his revelatory experience cannot be calamitous because of his upstanding ethical practice, and that Gabriel’s sense of propriety in the presence of an uncovered woman is the criterion through which the transcendent is to be assessed. Hence, we come to another formulation of the principle that humanity “has no ground other than itself,” albeit this time in a mood that is more epistemological than metaphysical, namely, that revelation must accord with reason.

It might still be claimed that all this is beside the point. For what Gourgouris means by critique or secular criticism is not just a complication of the idea of transcendence but to develop the affective capacity to “perform one’s worldly existence without God.”[xxii] Yet, here too, we find a parallel Islamic gesture that recalls Gourgouris’ mention of the retort by a Woody Allen character – “To you, I am an atheist. To God, I am the loyal opposition.”[xxiii] Consider the qawwali,[xxiv] “Whether I receive heaven or not,” [xxv] by the Pakistani qawwal Aziz Mian.[xxvi] The qawwali opens with the hopeful prayer that God may forgive the sinner. Then it moves from celebrating God’s mercy to remembering God’s promise to Muhammad that He will forgive his followers. And it culminates in the assertion that since God has already promised forgiveness, there is no need for him to continue desiring an entry into heaven. Instead, the qawwal/poet decides to redirect his attention to Medina, the city of his (and His) beloved Muhammad. The first point here concerns the idea of heaven, which is not imagined as a place of reward. Its contrast with Medina is meant to juxtapose the abodes of two beloveds, Allah and Muhammad, both competing for the qawwal’s attention. Second, Aziz Mian’s turn towards Muhammad and rejection of Allah, does not merely perform a kind of reductio on the popular idea that Muslims have been promised heaven, but also a disdain towards the threat of Divine wrath, the typical reason for obedience adduced by the conventionally-pious, who are, as in this case, often at the receiving end of a qawwali. Thus, the qawwali shows how one possible immanent Islamic critique imagines a “worldly” life or a “political” act without the need to call upon God. In fact, it does the very opposite. It discards God, and along with God, all those who are smugly self-satisfied in their godliness. Now, if this is not, in Gourgouris’s words, “a poiētic confrontation with the [theistic] social-imaginary of our times,”[xxvii] then, I think it can be safely said that I have completely misunderstood Gourgouris’ conception of secular criticism.

In conclusion, I hope to have at least complicated the assumption that there is some necessary equation between critique and secularity. Similarly, I hope to have said enough to attract others to the project of developing an “outline of immanent critique in Islamic traditions.”[xxviii] And I certainly do not mean to suggest that what I have said is not open to contention on Islamic grounds. In addition to the various alternate routes Muslims can take for developing an immanent Islamic critique, I imagine many Muslims have their reasons for conceiving of Islam and secularism as two separable social realities.[xxix] However, until convinced otherwise, I am comfortable stating that I am a postsecularist, at least in the sense described above, and that other Muslims need to jump on this “bandwagon” as well, though never at the expense of undermining the potential for an Islamic critique of both “secularism,” as well as “Islam.”[xxx]



[i] The title is an obvious acknowledgment of my indebtedness to the “Kantian” aspirations of Herman Cohen in his Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism (New York: Ungar, 1972)

[ii] For a survey of how widely “political theology” might be interpreted as a term see Annika Thiem’s “Schmittian Shadows and Contemporary Theological-Political Constellations,” in Social Research, 80:1 (2013) p.1-32.

[iii] It is in this sense that Jürgen Habermas uses the term “postsecular” (postsäkular) in his “Die Dialektik der Säkularisierung” (Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, April 2008.) available at http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2008-04-15-habermas-de.html. And similarly, Hent De Vries in his introduction to Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

[iv] On the urgency that this matter merits, see Winnifred Sullivan’s The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[v] See William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) especially, Chapter 2. Though Cavanaugh only deals with the emergence and use of these categories in the European and American context, his analysis can be easily stretched to include the transference of these categories into the Islamic context, both colonial and post-colonial. For some of the effects of this transference see Abdulkader Tayob’s Religion in Modern Islamic Discourse (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[vi] After all, in the words of Jonathan Z. Smith, most scholars of religion know that religion has “no independent existence apart from the academy.” Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), xi.

[vii] See, first, Asad et all, Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (University of California Press: 2009). Available at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/84q9c6ft#. Next, see the exchange between Stathis Gourgouris and Saba Mahmood in Public Culture 20:3 (2008) p.437-465. Also, see the various posts on the Social Science Research Council blog Immanent Frame at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/category/is-critique-secular/. However, it should also be kept in mind that this debate is just one incarnation of a larger and much older problem. Within the Euro-American context, this question over the secular character of critique stretches, at least, as far back as Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay Was ist Aufklärung.?

[viii] See boundary 2, 40:1 (2013) p.1-262

[ix] See Gourgouris, “Why I Am Not a Postsecularist,” boundary 2, 40:1 (2013) p.41-54.

[x] Though, strictly speaking, there is a distinction to be made between “criticism” and “critique,” for the purposes of this essay, and mirroring Gourgouris’ use, I use them interchangeably.

[xi] Gourgouris, “Detranscendentalizing the Secular,” Public Culture, 20:3 (2008) p.437.

[xii] Which, according to Gourgouris, is not to be confused with the institutionalized metaphysics of secularism

[xiii] Irfan Ahmad, “Immanent Critique and Islam: Anthropological Reflections,” Anthropological Theory, 11:1 (2011) p.107-132.

[xiv] See the Introduction in Ali Nadvi’s Tarīkh-e Daʿwat-o ʿzīmat (Karachi: Majlis-e Nasharīyāt-e Islam, 1969)

[xv] Gourgouris, “Why Am I Not a Postsecularist,” p.42.

[xvi] Along with the contributions mentioned above, see his “The Poiein of Secular Criticism,” in A Companion to Comparative Literature, ed Ali Behdad and Dominic Thomas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2011), and “Every Religion Is Idolatory,” in Social Research, 80:1 (2013); p. 101-128 (especially, p.107-118). [I also look forward to his forthcoming book Lessons In Secular Criticism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), wherein, I assume, we will find the most systematic presentation of his thoughts on this topic]

[xvii] Ibid., 112.

[xviii] And seemingly shared by a whole strain of contemporary thinkers (such as Giles Deleuze) influenced by the Spinozistic conception of immanence.

[xix] Wonderfully captured by the following (immensely popular) couplet – [translation mine] “Raise the self to heights such that, before every decree God Himself inquires of his slave ‘what is your desire?’”

[xx] See Amira Mittermaier’s “Dreams from Elsewhere: Muslim Subjectivities Beyond the Trope of Self-cultivation,” Journal of Royal Anthropology, 18:2 (2012) p.247-265.

[xxi] To see what Zizek makes of this interaction between Muhammad and his wife, see his A Glance into the Archives of Islam (2009) [accessible at http://www.lacan.com/zizarchives.htm].

[xxii] Gourgouris, Why Am I Not a Postsecularist, p.44.

[xxiii] In quoting Woody Allen here, what seems to have escaped Gourgouris is the ironical possibility that his own avowed atheism might turn out to be nothing more than loyal opposition.

[xxiv] For an introduction to the art of Qawwali, see Regula Burckhardt Qureshi’s Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context and Meaning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)

[xxvi] Despite my disagreements with some of the assertions made therein, for a relatively brief and popular introduction to Aziz Mian’s art and life, see the following discussion by the Pakistani public intellectual Nadeem Farooq Paracha – http://beta.dawn.com/news/790958/crazy-diamonds-v

[xxvii] Gourgouris, “Why Am I Not a Postsecularist,” p.42.

[xxviii] For another similar attempt, see Noah Salomon and Jeremy F. Walton’s “Religious criticism, secular critique, and the “critical study of religion”: lessons from study of Islam,” in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, ed Robert A. Orsi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)

[xxix] See Abdullahi An-Naʿim’s Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008)

[xxx] Their apparent “ethnographic philanthropy,” or the alleged inability of postsecularists to display any “critical involvement in the postcolonial societies and communities” they study, is another major reason that animates the rejection of postsecularism by the contributors to boundary 2 40:1 (2013). In particular, see, Aamir Mufti’s, “Why Am I Not a Postsecularist,” p.7-19. My hope is that the idea of an immanent Islamic critique is able to get us beyond such accusations.

(2) Comments

  1. Thanks, Omar — as you know, I find this argument entirely compelling (and love your conjunction of Woody Allen and Aziz Mian). I wonder if you might elaborate on a point of strategy. The post here insists that two terms of an opposition (religion/politics, theology/secular) are united and dissolved in a third (immanent critique, essentially held in common). (The relation of this third term in relation to the first two seems to be left open — does it undergird them, striate them, exceed them?) What we are left with, after this argument, is a variety of critical traditions (variously shaped, historically constituted and contested, pushing at the boundaries set by their exponents) that we call by different names. In other words, we now see that critique serves as one engine driving the development of discursive traditions. And this is one way we can arrive at your postsecular confession. But you note there are other ways we could also reach this conclusion. This critical model of two terms translating into a third differs from one in which two terms contaminate and constitute each other (e.g., the autonomy/heteronomy opposition you mention). You say you avoided the latter approach in order to focus on the Islamic archive. But certainly we might read Islam (via Aziz Mian or otherwise) alongside Gourgouris to trace an analogy between them, that in each case autonomy and heteronomy writ large constitute each other and so cannot be claimed exclusively, etc. This critical model would also unsettle the categories of religion/politics, if not to similar effect. But what I want to press you on here, given your predilection for retaining a normative element in scholarship (askesis), is whether there are other reasons you chose to argue the way you did. My venture, based on what you’ve said here and elsewhere, is that you see the critical strategy that translates/dissolves two terms into a third as a more productive strategy in thinking the prospects of Islamic political theology, than the critical strategy that has two terms co-implicate each other. It allows more room to maneuver, being less recursive, and produces a concept that can be turned on itself and others. Can we extrapolate from this a broader ethical/polemical/generative methodological recommendation for political theology, Islamic and otherwise, in surveying its possible critical modes (genealogy, deconstruction, dialectic, historicism, etc.)?

    • So, if I understand your correctly, there are at least two questions here – one about my own interests/predilections in methodologies/kinds of critique and another about their “fit” with the various options/modes available within the Islamic tradition/sources. Re: my own interests – I wouldnt want to sideline the deconstructive strategy (contamination/mutual-constitution) as quickly as it might seem from the above (Aziz Mian himself many such moments, for example when overturns his alleged wretchedness into a point of glorification by stating that without his sinning, God would not remain al-Rahman/Merciful, so he needs al-Rahman as much as al-Rahman needs him). But yes I think it is more accurate to say that I tend to find the dissolution into a third term more productive. Anyway, my thoughts on this are still developing so I wouldnt want to over commit to any one mode in particular. Re: the various modes available in Islam or amongst Muslims – I think one can find something or the other that resembles all of the above in various guises. For example, if one wants to use “historicism” – hadith studies might be construed along those lines, and we often come across discussions on “fabricated/spurious” ahadith that are corrupting the ummah. Similarly, one might read figures like Mawdudi in his anti-West polemics as taking an archeaological approach analogous to Foucault. However, with all of these one has to be careful to not press the “similarities” to the point of dissolving (or worse, ignoring) the “differences” – and that is probably one reason why my approach is also inclined to finding commonality in a third and then specifying differences in that term’s multiple instantiations (though I didnt really do that above). Nevertheless, what I think is most important is that to get at those differences, a priori categories like “religion” “west” Islam” “politics” are not helpful, for it often turns out that on some metrics the similarity between, say, a Khomeini and a Robespierre, is significantly greater than, say, that between a Khomeini and a Thanwi. It would have been ideal if I could have just used some Islamic source, for example the tajdid literature and see how it understands the “critical” work of a Mujaddid/renewer, or pay attention to the sense of “crisis” fostered in the Qur’an, and elaborated/developed an Islamic conception of critique therein – but that would have been difficult in a short entry like the above. Anyway, I hope that made some sense? Thanks for engaging!

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