Critical Muslims

This post is an unashamed plug for a new quarterly publication that has come out in Britain in the last year, and is now in its fourth number. It’s called Critical Muslim, and it is edited by my friend Ziauddin Sardar. In describing it, I can’t do much better than quoting Zia’s own words on the subject, but I’ll preface those by saying that Critical Muslim is a high quality, readable publication that looks a little like Granta – a stout, beautifully designed paperback book, full of good things. Above all what is striking about it (and about those of its editors I know personally) is that it is – they are – intelligent, self-questioning, critical, literate and relevant.That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it all (I don’t. and that’s the point of it), but it does mean you take it seriously and read it with quiet pleasure. It is terrifically important that in Europe today we see Muslim publications that stand, as of right and without concession, with the best publications of any kind, and this CM does. Its editor is an academic and a writer on many subjects, from religion to science via critical theory, post-modernism and art. He is a journalist, a broadcaster and an Equalities Commissioner, and has been both columnist for the New Statesman and professor at numerous universities, as well as working across the world for an open, thoughtful and creative Islam. Critical Muslim no. 4, called Pakistan? is out now.

Ziauddin Sardar wrote recently in The Times:

Muslims have an aversion to criticism. Many believe that “their Islam”, whatever variety it happens to be, is perfect and above criticism. They believe that any question of any consequence will already have been answered by the great jurists of history. All that remains for believers to do is to log on to the internet and find the relevant clerical edict.

Of course, it was not always so. Criticism has been central to Islam from its inception. The Koran says that belief cannot be forced and it describes those who follow faith blindly as “cattle” unable to understand, see or hear. It repeatedly urges Muslims to think and reflect, observe and measure, travel and write, ask questions and criticise. The life of the Prophet Muhammad reveals that he was constantly questioned by his companions engaging in dialogue and discussion. In later years, the scholarship that evolved around collecting the traditions and sayings of the Prophet was itself based on what today we would call peer review.

Indeed, it was this critical spirit that catalysed achievements in science, art, architecture, literature and music. These achievements happened because practitioners were at home debating and arguing, criticising and accepting criticism.

There are numerous reasons why such a critical spirit is now harder to find. The loss of state backing is among them. In the classical Islamic period, heterodoxy was often encouraged if not tolerated by the state, either openly or tacitly, which allowed contrary views to be aired without fear of retribution. Religious scholars too developed an aversion to criticism and actively suppressed all dissent.

This lack of support for the right to critical thought, over the centuries, has allowed a singular world view to dominate and go unchallenged. It has contributed to tolerance of often violent forms of extremism and has reduced Muslims to ciphers — incapable of generating new and original ideas.

In my travels, I have met countless scholars, thinkers, writers and activists, young and not-so-young, who are frustrated with this state of affairs. They are angry that Islam has been hijacked by extremists, and they are impatient for change and reform, and eager to make their own contributions. But they often find themselves in isolation and fear expressing their views openly.

The quarterly Critical Muslim, which I launched earlier this year with the novelists Robin Yassin-Kassab and Aamer Hussein and journalists Ehsan Masood and Samia Rahman, is specifically designed as a platform for the ideas and work of this group. The project is based on the premise that a more pluralist future for Islam depends on looking at its history, tradition, legacy, theology, societies and cultures, critically. Another aim is to transform the isolated individuals into a global network, working to produce a modicum of critical thought that serves as a catalyst for positive change.

That we are Muslims is quite evident. But we do not understand “Islam” as a set of pieties and taboos. Neither do we recognise the authority of religious scholars at a loss with the modern world and too often giving respectability to prejudice, bigotry, xenophobia, and social and cultural malpractices. We do not label Muslims, whether they define their identity religiously or culturally and regard themselves as secular, liberal, conservatives or socialists. Rather, we embrace the diversity of contemporary Islam in all its mindboggling complexity. However, we challenge all interpretations of Islam: traditionalist, modernist, fundamentalist and apologetic to develop new readings with the potential for social, cultural and political transformation of the Muslim world.

We are critical in the sense of being sceptical of received ideas. Knowledge is provisional and depends on evidence. But we are also critical in another sense: we recognise that knowledge and its interpretation have a politics too. Critical Muslim will therefore be equally critical of unchecked power and authority wherever it is and that includes right home here in the West. It will be critical of the nationalism in our production of knowledge. It will be critical of the desire of the leaders of larger nations to dominate smaller ones, and critical of the way in which global mass media represent peoples and cultures from outside.

For us, Islam and the West are not two fuming bulls in a china shop but interdependent world views and cultures. We look at both critically and seek to synthesise what is best in both. Critical Muslim has a brave and distinguished British publisher, Michael Dwyer of Hurst and Co, because we recognise that today London offers more protection for the right to dissent than Lahore.

A magazine that questions everything is bound to face opposition and we have had our fair share of condemnation. From the obvious that Islam needs no criticism to the declaration of the entire project as heretical. The second issue, Critical Muslim 2: The Idea of Islam has already been banned in Malaysia and further bans are likely.

But there has been enthusiastic reaction too. We have been praised for both the quality of our criticism and for being bold. Young intellectuals see it as an important, timely project that pays homage to the rationalist school and universalist philosophers of Islamic thought, and have embraced it wholeheartedly. We have been inundated with contributions and our reception in Pakistan, where minority rights today are under the most extreme kind of threat, has been favourable and we will be co-publishing with Oxford University Press, Karachi.

Positive change requires a multigenerational effort. It is my hope that Critical Muslim will equip generations of Muslims everywhere with critical thought, embracing humanism and pluralism, thereby solving the pressing social and cultural problems of their societies.

Critical Muslim is a thoroughly Brtitish publication, in the best sense of that word – candid, brave, thoughtful, provocative and funny. Enjoy it.


One thought on “Critical Muslims

  1. This blog is new, yet is already proving its worth. In highlighting the complexities of identity politics – indeed, identities ‘tout court’ – it is challenging the flood of one- and two- dimensional commentaries that too often pass for analysis of what’s going on across what I cannot now, thanks to Mercurius, call the ‘Arab’ world. Even the terms we use need challenging, and quite rightly so. Other languages might often do better than English; occasionally they are themselves part of the problem. As this contribution shows, the misuse of language risks segregating, in some cases irrevocably, what ‘are not two fuming bulls in a china shop but interdependent world views and cultures’ (my favourite line from Ziauddin’s piece above).
    The overall effect has seen me hunting for my copy of Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’, inter alia. Instead – before leaving for Barcelona tonight, itself a hotbed of identity politics – I found a long-forgotten copy of Amin Maalouf’s ‘Les indentites meurtrieres’ (which I sincerely hope has been sympathetically translated into English at some stage).

    Published in France (Livre de Poche, Editions Grasset & Fasquelle) in 1998, Maalouf rails against the insanity of identity politics in the Levant. Given recent developments, methinks his views deserve a second reading. But it is his opening lines that most immediately demand attention: Maalouf’s arrival in Paris from war-torn Lebanon in 1976 sees him having to make a choice he will and cannot make between feeling ‘more French’ or ‘more Lebanese’ when questioned by those he meets.

    Therein lies the rub, as Mercurius has amply illustrated in the trajectory of his current and previous posts. I shan’t dare to ask the denizens of Barcelona whether they ‘feel’ more or less anything – not least since I suspect I won’t like the answer. And they, in turn, would probably like even less the fact that, faute de connaissances de la langue catalane, I would more than likely pose the question in Castillian Spanish.

    This globalised world of ours has seen all sorts of shrinkages, but none so pernicious as the reductionist discussion of identities, and the essentialisation of what has only been imagined and mythologised in the first place. We are all consciously or otherwise gulity or victims of this: just like the very ‘anglo-saxon’ label I personally don’t identify very strongly with, since I prefer the Normans and Celts who litter my own family’s mythologies and the (very Victorian) framed family tree that sits on my parents’ wall. It’s a subjective choice and the repercussions of that choice are equally subjective.

    Maalouf deserves further reading,and I shall report back on my findings. In passing, though, I’ve now remembered: it was a Moroccan who passed me on this copy, having read it, and who urged that I should read and digest it too. Things come full-circle after all…..

    All power to Mercurious’s elbow – and keep the threads coming!

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