As I discussed in my last post, while neo-traditionalists taught us a lot, they certainly did NOT give us the tools to analyze their teachings from a historical point of view. Unsurprisingly. Because as far as they were concerned, they were teaching us Timeless Truth, full stop. So, there would be no reason to draw our attention to evidence that what they were presenting as timeless had actually originated at a particular point in time and developed in response to particular events.
We weren’t completely oblivious. Sure, we dimly knew that there had been differences of opinion among the early Muslims, and among later generations too. But we were taught to view those differences we knew about in two basic ways: Either they were minor differences, and therefore not indicative of anything other than God’s mercy to the umma, or they were major differences, aka heresy, that put those who had had those ideas outside of Islam. In either case, differences of opinion didn’t communicate to us that in fact what we were being taught is “Tradition” was the result of centuries of debate. Human debates, that took place in contexts in which the building and maintaining of the political dominance of various factions.
So many things were presented to us as though it were “the way that it has always been” when in fact, it had not “always” been that way. Or “the way the Prophet taught”—with any interpretations of early or medieval Muslims that differed too much from this carefully airbrushed out of the picture, and the role of human interpretation barely if ever acknowledged.
What Muslim history we were exposed to was sanitized and romanticized, so that it was for us an inspirational epic tale in which the winners of every debate ultimately ended up being the “good guys” (meaning, that they were usually Sunni and also often of the Ash’ari theological persuasion—not coincidentally, just like us).
The blame for this state of affairs was not completely on our teachers, however. Looking back, I can see that we longed for certainty. Partly because we had been told that having it was a proof of having faith, but partly also because we ourselves were trying to suppress doubts. So, we went along quite willingly with the oversimplified, ahistorical, apologetic and romanticized picture of “Tradition” that we were given. In many ways, we were sheep ripe for the fleecing.
We had been taught a number of what I now can only call thought-stopping techniques—ways to intercept any thoughts or doubts we had that might pose a challenge to our faith. They ranged from traditional Muslim pious invocations to contemporary, pseudo-postcolonial ad hominem labeling.
How can you question a scripture that you can’t touch unless you are in a state of purity, and that you recite “surely, God has spoken the truth” after reading?
How can you even question any act or word attributed to the Prophet when you are taught to recite peace and blessings after mentioning or writing his name (and your leaders go farther, referring to him as “the beloved of God” and other such-like titles that wrap him in a sort of reflected divinity)?
And how can you question the views of scholars who you have been taught were acclaimed by hundreds or thousands of the people of knowledge of their time as greatly learned? Whose funerals were attended by thousands of mourners? Whose books have been passed down and commented on by generations of scholars, and are read by scholars today? Whose names are spoken with reverence?
And if all this were not enough, how can you take seriously internal Muslim questioning or challenges to the “tradition”, when they are supposedly all westoxicated or misled by Orientalism or in the pay of the Rand Corporation??