Postmodernism, don't fight it, embrace it

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by Rafiq Clarkson

I am going to discuss postmodernism, Islam, ourselves and our readings of the Qur’an. In my brief survey of writers they seem to either: (1) disparage postmodernism as an aberrant child of modernism (cf Postmodernity and the crisis of “truth” by Muqtedar Khan); or (2) treat it as a cultural force of late capitalism; i.e. it is couched in terms of post-colonialism exploitation of Muslims and it is mainly concerned with the ‘media’ as postmodernism par excellence (cf Postmodernism and Islam - Predicament and Promise, Akbar S Ahmed).

I am not aware of Islamic Scholars that have debated or analysed postmodernism’s contribution to the science of reading and constructing meaning, and the relevance to Qur’anic hermeneutics. The exception is Farid Esack, whose methodology draws from postmodern principle, but who seems to distance himself from postmodernism. People dismiss his ideas enough, even without his being tainted as a postmodernist.

Anyhow, I find this phenomenon curious, as I would have thought that any discipline that seeks to understand ‘reading’ and ‘interpretation of texts’ thoroughly would be important to Islamic scholarship.

So I want to discuss my ideas of postmodernism, briefly compare a postmodern worldview with a Qu’ranic worldview, and then explore the task of reading the Qur’an.

Through this I want to raise our awareness of how each of us is ‘postmodern’ to some extent (perhaps more profoundly than you might have thought before this talk) and that you no longer view postmodernism as the ‘other’ out there to be studied or fought against but an intrinsic part of each person’s view of the world and therefore a part of our personal understanding of Islam.

Definitions of postmodernism.

My major criticism of those writing about postmodernism is their attempt to comprehensively define ‘postmodernism’. Postmodernism aims to challenge all attempts to universalism and thus eludes the definer.

The result is confusion for the writer and to the audience.

“The inventory of features assigned to post-modernism includes: self-referential discourse, heterodoxy, eclecticism, marginality, death of utopia (read: communism), death of the author, deformation, dysfunction, deconstruction, disintegration, displacement, discontinuity, non-lineal view of history, dispersion, fragmentation, dissemination, rupture, otherness, decentering of the subject, chaos, rhizoma, rebellion, the subject as power, gender difference/power (probably the most positive as a revision of patriarchy), dissolution of semiotics into energetics, auto-proliferation of signifiers, infinite semiosis, cybernetics, pluralism (read: freedom versus ‘totalitarianism’), critique of reason, procession of simulacra and representations, dissolution of legitimizing ‘narrative’ (hermeneutics, emancipation of the proletariat, epic of progress, dialectic of the spirit), a new episteme or sign system.” (Zavala [1988] cited in Fardon 1992:25 - Islam, Globalization and Postmodernity p11)

Rather than try to define postmodernism for all contexts and situations, I will treat it as a literary phenomena that impacts other aspects of our lives.

In this context postmodernism is concerned with how meaning is constructed and it critiques modernist assumptions of meaning.

In the Modernist approach to the text:

  1. Text is supreme - meaning is self-evident, and we approach it through the rules of grammar. The assumption is a direct link between sign and referent. But do we all think of the same referent?
  2. Author is supreme - The meaning is whatever the author intended. This implicitly means historical research for ancient texts. The problem is that the text is lost in its context.

Postmodern literary criticism is aware of the limitation of objectivity achieving meaning through either technique. Why not just admit it and deal with the implications? Meaning is formed in the Reader.

Literary Element Grammatical-historical Method Postmodern Method
Author The author intended to convey a message through the text. That intent is the true meaning of the text. Therefore, the author is the authority over the text. The author is irrelevant to meaning or unaware of the meaning of the text. The author doesn’t stand over the text as an authority
Text The text is to be interpreted in light of the rules of grammar at the time it was written, the historical world view of the intended readers, and the thought development throughout the text. Texts are to be "deconstructed" and freed from "logocentrism." Behind the text lie the "metanarrative" and internal contradictions that discerning readers detect and expose. The text is an artifact of a particular cultural reality.
Reader The reader is to use the tools of interpretation to discover the original intention of the author for the original audience. The goal of good exegesis is to let the text speak, while avoiding, as much as possible, introducing reader bias. No reader can eliminate reader bias. Whatever the author intended, we will never know exactly. Therefore, the reader becomes the center of meaning. The locus of authority over the text shifts from the author to the reader.

[Digression into terminology]

(taken from Conway, Stephen. A Postmodern Primer. 1996., who in turn is quoting from the essays within Lentricchia, Frank; McLaughlin, Thomas (eds). Critical Terms for Literary Study. 1995.)

Modernism posits itself as a source of dogmatic knowledge. Dogmatic knowledge is an unchanging, absolute ideology. It has found the Truth or believes it is possible to acquire it. Knowledge is objective, tangible and quantifiable. The dogmatic mode attempts to subordinate further critical thinking in order to spread the knowledge of Truth.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, aspires to reflect the critical. Critical knowledge is a process, rather than product. Absolute knowledge is unattainable, conditional, and provisional at best. Any unequivocal sense of the real is rendered superfluous. Truth, therefore, remains elusive, relativistic, partial, and always incomplete; it cannot be learned in totality. “Truth itself is a contingent affair and assumes a different shape in the light of differing local urgencies and convictions associated with them” (Fish 207). Critical knowledge has no choice but to exercise complicity with the cultural historical context in which it is hopelessly mired. As Lee Patterson states, “Even scholars who are dealing with chronologically and geographically distant materials are in fact examining a cultural matrix within which they themselves stand, and the understandings at which they arrive are influenced not simply by contemporary interests but by the shaping past that they are engaged in recovering” (259).

Postmodern literary criticism asserts that art, author, and audience can only be approached through a series of mediating contexts. “Novels, poems, and plays are neither timeless nor transcendent” (Jehlen 264). Even questions of canon must be considered within such contexts. “Literature is not only a question of what we read but of who reads and who writes, and in what social circumstances...The canon itself is an historical event; it belongs to the history of the school” (Guillory 238,44). Annabel Patterson articulates the decline of authorial power as a transition from autonomous art to Foucault’s notion of anonymous discourse (143). Authors cannot hide their meanings in texts because authors themselves are transparent, culturally determined entities (A. Patterson 144). The judgment of the critic is, therefore, also “always interested or prejudicial”, because the critic him or herself “must always belong to a group, a time, a place” (Guillory 235-7). Thus literary truth is not indicative of any transcendent quality, but a matter of consensus. (Guillory 235). Thus, as Lee Patterson states, “texts do not merely reflect social reality but create it” (260).

[End of digression]

Postmodern philosophy or worldview occurs when these ideas are applied to situations other than just reading books.

i.e. one starts to ‘read’:

  1. The media
  2. Music
  3. Political structures
  4. Interpersonal relationships
  5. and so on…

Shakespeare wrote, “For all the world’s a stage” The postmodernist would think, “For all the world’s a book”. That is, you can apply the principles of reading to life.

Let me link the Postmodernism and Qur’anic worldview. Now before condemning this claim as outrageous think about the following:

Islam is considered to be one of three ‘Book religions’. I suspect that many Islamic scholars have taken the principles of reading the Qur’an in applications for life.

The link can be made thru the use of ayat or sign: An ayat can either be a section of the Qur’an or an element of nature. For example, Said Nursi talks about ‘reading’ creation to be reminded of Allah.

The difficulty of linking sign and referent is not absent in Islam. I reflect on the opening statement of Surah Baqarah ‘thalikal kitab’, the mysterious referent. And I also think of the mystery of Allah in all the signs of Allah.

Specific readings of the Qur’an

We read with certain expectations and filters. In particular, meaning is formed around certain ‘hot spots’ and we tend to either subjugate information into hierarchical links or they become new ‘hot spots’ if they are important enough to us.

When we read texts that we associate with these ‘hot spots’, a person will tend to say the text ‘really makes sense’.

Into this matrix the Qur’an (or any other text) will have it’s own grid. But the difficulty is in defining the ‘hot spots’ in a Qur’anic grid. Also the Qur’anic grid is subsumed into our grid to become one of many ‘hotspots’ of meaning.

These ‘hotspots’ of meaning are also know as ‘hermeneutical keys’ and a number of scholars have tried to abstract principles that will be universal for all readers of the Qur’an.

Fazlur Rahman’s method is:

He thus reads into the Qur’an whatever conforms to the requirements of ‘god-consciousness’ and social justice and, invoking ‘ijtihad’ (scholarly creative endeavour), applies the principle of progressive revelation to conform to it.

However, “His criteria of knowledge are based on the primacy of cognition and he ignores the relationship between cognition and praxis” p67 This results in “a regrettable ignorance of the structural causes of injustice and refers to the need for social justice in somewhat condescending terms”.

While I find Rahman’s values appealing, I too do not accept them as MY hermeneutical keys or ‘hotspots’ in reading the Qur’an.

For example, significant to my embrace of Islam is a direct experience of Prophet Isa (pbuh) and my consequential burning question: “If Islam is the truth, why did Prophet Isa (pbuh) appear before me and not Prophet Muhammad (saw)? I found answers to this question in the Qur’an and those answers form the basis for interpreting other texts in the Qur’an.

Also in my first complete reading of the Qur’an I understood the basic message as “If you really believed in Akhira then you would live your life differently”

I would expect others here to also have unique and personal ‘hermeneutical keys’ or hotspots in which they organise the text of the Qur’an and gain meaning; for example:

  1. Reading the text in such a way that affirms our past i.e. upbringing by parents, personal beliefs
  2. The contrast of Mecca and Medina
  3. Respect in workplace
  4. English interpreters will influence, both of Qur’anic translations and tafsirs. Will we have a tabligh manual - a cultural expression of how we should negotiate the text?
  5. Personalities: early adopters, critical of existing systems of meaning. Islam an expression of alternatives.
  6. Disenfranchised by existing system, (boxers, relationships)
  7. Attraction to the exotic Other.
  8. Christian/biblical context.
  9. Qur’an is meaningful for its silences as much as its speech.
  10. 10:37 Qur’an gives fuller meaning to previous kitabs and that kitab (it gives its own tafsir)
  11. Many will treat it like this… a commentary on previous scriptures

Other Methods:

Mohammed Arkoun.

Farid Esack. The agenda is ‘Liberation’:

  1. Taqwa - ‘heeding the voice of one’s conscience in awareness that one is accountable to God’
  2. Tawhid - Undivided God for an undivided humanity
  3. An-naas - The People shall govern
  4. Vantage point of the disempowered and marginalised
  5. Jihad as praxis

Taken from “Islam, Globilization and Postmodernity”

What would the Christian and Muslim contributions to such a joint venture look like? Sardar tries to provide an answer by stripping both faiths down to essentials, dismissing everything else as open to exegesis and reinterpretation. The essentials of Christianity are the following three theses:

  1. Belief in the existence of one God, a uniquely perfect transcendent Being.
  2. Acceptance of the ethical and religious authority and leadership of the historical personage of Jesus of Nazareth.
  3. A commitment to viewing the life of Jesus as a disclosure and human exemplification of the moral excellence of deity such that the imitation of Jesus’ behaviour is already a moral action in the believer’s life. [Sardar refers to Akthar 1990:49] (Sardar 1991:78).

The corresponding reduction of Islam also leads to three theses:

  1. Belief in the existence of one God, a uniquely perfect transcendent Being.
  2. Recognition of the Qur’an as the Word of God
  3. Acceptance of the Prophet Muhammad as the paradigm of ethical and moral behaviour and his life, the Sunnah, as a commentary on the Qur’an (Sardar 1991:79).

Christians and Muslims who can accept this version of the essential elements of their faith would not, Sardar expects, have any objections to a code of ethics based on elements from both religions. This is his own list of elements which he insists must be treated as interconnected, as forming a system:

The Bible has furnished us with such theological virtues as faith, love, hope, justice, courage, temperance and prudence. Muslims would have no trouble in accepting these virtues as guides to human behaviour. The worldview of Islam provides us with a number of interconnected values and concepts that have a direct bearing on the conduct of human enterprise: tawheed (unity of God), khilafa (trusteeship of man), ibadah (worship), ilm (knowledge), adl (justice), ijma (consensus) and istislah (public interest), to mention just a few. Most Christians should have little trouble in accepting these value concepts as the credo on which moral life turns. Combine the two sets of virtues and we have a complicated ethics that is capable of shaping policies and providing distinct alternatives to the secularist options. (Sardar 1991:83)

As in the case of Akbar Ahmed, we end up with a set of principles that the author presents as the essence of Islam, an essence which if accepted would be a vital contribution to world civilization. It is time to ask how this version of Islam relates to other versions.

Abdal Hakim Murad.

Religious Movements

The legitimation of differences in fiqh was rooted in the understanding of ijtihad. And differences in spiritualities were justified by the Sufis in terms of the idea that al-turuq ila’Llah bi’adadi anfas al-khala’iq (‘there are as many paths to God as there are human breaths’). As Ibn al-Banna’, the great Sufi poet of Saragossa expressed it, ibaraatuna shatta wa-husnuka wahidun, wa-kullun ila dhak al-jamali yushiru (‘our expressions differ, but Your beauty is one, and all are pointing towards that Beauty’).

This mentality recalls the Kharijite takfir, but to understand why it is growing in the modern umma, we have to understand not just the formal history, but the psychohistory of our situation. Religious movements are the expression not just of doctrines and scriptures, but also of the hopes and fears of human collectivities. In times of confidence, theologies tend to be broad and eirenic. But when the community of believers feels itself threatened, exclusivism is the frequent result. And never has the Umma felt more threatened than today.

The Qur‘an is the richest of all the world’s scriptures in its emphasis on the beauty of nature as a theophany - a mazhar - of the Divine names. Their conclusions are clear. Almost all educated converts to Islam come in through the door of Islamic spirituality. In the middle ages, the Sufi tariqas were the only effective engine of Islamisation in Muslim minority areas like Central Asia, India, black Africa and Java; and that pattern is maintained today.

Why should this be the case? Well, any new Muslim can tell you the answer. Westerners are in the first instance seeking not a moral path, or a political ideology, or a sense of special identity - these being the three commodities on offer among the established Islamic movements. They lack one thing, and they know it - the spiritual life. Thus, handing the average educated Westerner a book by Sayyid Qutb, for instance, or Mawdudi, is likely to have no effect, and may even provoke a revulsion. But hand him or her a collection of Islamic spiritual poetry, and the reaction will be immediately more positive. It is an extraordinary fact that the best-selling religious poet in modern America is our very own Jalal al-Din Rumi. Despite the immeasurably different time and place of his origin, he outsells every Christian religious poet

Ernest Gellner, the Cambridge anthropologist has described Islam as ‘the last religion’ - the last in the sense of truly believing its scriptural narratives to be normative

And, we may quite reasonably hope those narratives will once again affirm without the ambiguity of worldly failure, the timeless and challenging words, wa kalimatuLlahi hiya al-ulya - ‘and the word of God is supreme’.

Rafiq Clarkson

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