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How must Islam be reimagined, in this age of complexity and ideological confusion?

I am interested in grounding my proposition, that philosophical inquiry,  within the framework of a worldview I am most familiar with: Islam. The question is: how rigid is this cultural philosophy and how has the spectrum of its conservatism been a cognitive-political-social challenge to the evolution of the Muslim mind of the 21st. century? Framed Socratically, I will have no answers to offer but from a phenomenological perspective will hope that we will produce some perspectives closer to our hearts and minds. Complexity Theory (the “butterfly effects of Islamism”) will be alluded to in the foregoing discussion; one that will look at the intricate and daunting task of conceptualizing the religion itself as both a personal as well as a public discourse of knowledge and power. 

The ongoing struggle between the idea that Islam is a belief system immutable and one that is open to innovations, between its certitudity and fluidity, its rock –hard foundationalism and water-logic-ness, its Imam Al-Ghazalli-ness and Ibnu’ Al-Arabi-ness – ideas that are today manifesting in the external and internal conflict in Islam itself. 

Privatizing Islam

I am beginning to believe that the private and personal aspect of belief is more important to be nurtured than to be engaged in the act of making religion public and having an agenda for promoting it, leading to the ugly word called ‘proselytizing’.

Religious wars are fought not only out of the need for more land, wealth, and control over human and material resources but also the belief that one’s religion need to be ‘spread’ and an ‘empire of faith’ created. This is the main feature of history of social evolution: conquest in the name of this or that god.

How do we bring back the idea that we have probably made a wrong historical turn and that religion need to again be kept private and faith need to be nurtured only on the inside and not to be made public as a process of expanding institutions? In the case of Islam for example, how do we save it from further damage from all these sectoral violent conflicts and keep it private, as in the idea of separation of religion and the state.

Saving ‘private’ Islam comes to my mind. Re-imagining Islam comes as a theme of inquiry of this age of “post-Post humanism” some might call it.

Here are my random thoughts. It is about making Islam private again and having the believers think about the most fundamental and foundational inner thought that will guide action: Tawhid or the Quantum Physics idea of Singularity.

One of the realities about Islam as it is represented today is that very few understand its meaning in a contemporary social context, let alone be able to apply it to the world that is organic, emotionally unstable, and constantly evolving as patterned by organized chaos and complexity.

What is missing in the discourse of contemporary Islam is the idea of the fluidity of One-ness and the bounded-ness of Multiplicity as twin paradoxes of what philosophy in this age of cybernetics, terrorism, and ‘neo-frankensteinism’ means.

In other words, what Muslims of today need is not about debate, dialogue, and discourse in ‘what is the correct ideology that constitutes Islam’, but a radical rephrasing of the question itself: what is this notion of peace within the self, as it interacts with the outer boundaries of the self and how must the “self” behave in a world of complexity of beings without losing the fundamental belief in the holistic and philosophic-ness of the self itself.

This is the notion of ‘tawhid’ in traditional Islamic discourse Islamic scholars of today need to explore.

What Muslims need to develop is a version of reconstructed ‘Tawhidism’; one that is not about the Islamic concept of it, with the cultural baggage of Arabism; rather, it is about the interplay between Singularity and Multiplicity we frame using some version of Complexity Theory.

Scholars need to look at the Islamic notion of the ‘knowledge of the One-ness of god’, from the philological and philosophical perspective and see how this idea can move nations, especially as we see the relevance to the Muslims in Malaysia, in Turkey, in Pakistan, and even in Saudi Arabia.

Complexity Theory and Islam

The world of today continues to evolve in all its complexity. Advanced digital communication technologies, high speed informational flow that instantaneously send images and ideas of change, the process of globalization itself that alter and compress time and space and even decide the course of human and social events – all these continue to fragment the human self.

Religion, such as Islam which claims to be adaptable to changing times is also affected by the destruction of the ‘singularity of the selfhood of the Muslim’. New ideas and inventions challenge Islamic orthodoxy and open up new debates that demand new perspectives, or edicts, or “fatwas” to be written to safeguard the ‘fragmentation of Islam’.

In short, the Muslim of today lives in a spiritual world of deconstructionism; ideas bombard the self into multiplicity rather than hold it as a ‘Singularity’, as how promoters of Islam orthodoxy would demand.

Complex systems require a complex view of looking at phenomena. The idea of complexity brought about by the post-Industrial world and as it impacts the mind, body, and soul of the Muslim individually and collectively as an ‘ummah’ (a millinearistic supra-nation of Oneness before Allah,) has brought fragmentation amongst the believers of this religion.

From the historical conflicts of the major schools of thought, to the violent departure of ideological Islam in the Shia-Sunni schism, to the ‘crisis of identity’ plaguing Muslims of today especially post-9/11 – these characterize fragmentation that have led to never-ending violent conflicts in the Islamic world. Muslims are living in a world of Islamic chaos, so to speak.

If we take the idea of Chaos Theory as one that tries to explain small changes leading to larger systemic changes over a long period of time (the ‘Butterfly Effect’,) and apply it to the phenomena of Islam’s evolution as an institutionalized religious ideology, we could see that there is the need to look the core issue of the loss of ‘the principle of Singularity’ or ‘One-ness’ or ‘Unity’ brought about by Muhammad.

There is a loss of the sense of and the understanding of ‘Tawhid’ or the deep understanding of the knowledge and application of the principles of the one-ness of god or Allah that not only should unify the self but society.

Tawhidic knowledge can perhaps de-fragment the self, bring it to holism and create an understanding that man is the vicegerent of Allah on Earth, as how the early teachings of Islam and the ‘early Tawhidists’ at the time of Muhammad would enjoin.

Today’s Islam is a manifestation of deep-rooted fragmentation and even destruction of the self as can be seen in the conduct of nations calling themselves Islamic. Whether the blame is put on geopolitical, political-economic, or post-industrial complexities of a multipolar world of today, or even the power play amongst empires such as Russia or the United States, the issue in the world of Islam is chaos and the multitudinality of conflicts as opposed to unity and strength of the self and society as taught by Islam.

So how does Tawhidism interpret problems and offer solutions to major issues of today?

An interesting case study

Malaysia is an interesting case study because of its interesting evolution not only as a plural society but also one impacted by contemporary advances in globalised technologies and ideologies.

In the Malaysian scenario, a ‘version’ of Islam began being imposed upon the rakyat (people) since the 1980s during a first phase of ‘Islamisation’. The reign of Mahathir Mohamad brought mega-changes such as the imposition of Malaysia Incorporated, the Privatisation Policy, and The Look East policy.

It also brought the push to ‘Islamise society’, through the work of Mahathir’s deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.

Educational, cultural, and governmental institutions were made to be more ‘Islamic’, and the nation was hegemonised by this idea of moral and intellectual leadership.

As this idea evolved and permeated through the system, this ‘Islamic version of Malaysia’s developmentalist paradigm’ became one that couldn’t be questioned as to its singularity, where any person even hinting of deviating from the official view would face authoritarian consequences through the ‘Sharia police’.

There is a transculturalist and revisionist perspective on the Islamic scriptures. Scholars have begun to acknowledge the fact that the Islamic text or the Quran is ‘cultural-bound’ and speaks of the time and place unique to the people of the Middle East. The stories in the Quran are essentially about prophets and messengers of the land of Arabia.

There is then the problem of universalizing the experience of reading the text without ‘transferring the culture embedded in the language itself’. This has led to immense disagreement and conflict in how to approach the text of the Muslims without a culture subjecting itself to the process or even the onslaught of Arabization.

In addition, centuries old Islam-predated cultural ideas such as animism in parts of South-East Asia included have been planted their roost in the psyche of the peoples, giving the unique identity such as those manifested in the idea of Javanese syncretism.

Especially in South-East Asia, Hindu-Buddhist philosophy was already in vogue in the early kingdoms such as those in Srivijaya, Mataram, Singhasari, Majapahit in Java and in the kingdoms in Champa and Siam. Islam came at a later stage through the work of Arab traders and also those deliberately trying to spread this new religion from Arabia.

The triumph of Islam is clear today: the Muslim man is becoming the Arabian man. How is this possible in relation to the idea of Islam as a private affair for the soul of the believer?

Marriage of Liberalism and Islamism

Is such an ideological marriage possible? Will it be compatible? Or has it always been there awaiting divorce?

We live at a time of ideological, philological, and semantic confusion, I feel, because we have trapped ourselves in words; because we use elusive concepts to define words we employ, to argue, to clarify, to elaborate, to extrapolate, to state our point of view, to deduce, to induce, and to conclude and to lock ourselves in this prison-house of language and we swallow the keys. I am still trying to grasp the meaning of the ongoing, futile debate between, especially the “liberals’ and the “Islamists” of Malaysia and to discern not the dichotomies and the seemingly irreconcilable worldviews that see to clash with each other ala’ that Samuel Huntington thesis produced some time ago.

There is now a “liberal” camp and an “Islamist” camp. We must look into the mind of these campers, some happy and some unhappy, and see what the neural network of complexities look like, what concepts gets link from one another as the sub-concepts of the definitions try to find way to connect to what is meaningful as if they are creepers in my Walden II, some sweet smelling some not.

Somewhat in the tradition of “stream of consciousness” (as James Joyce -long-sentence-lamentation-styled of musings) I wrote the piece below when I saw a photo of a top-ranking officer of Malaysia’s Islamic party talking about Islam his wrist showing a thousand-dollar Omega watch, and while the image of Al Rush in Raphael’s painting “School of Athens:” came my mind:

Al Rushd, or Averroes as the Greeks Hellenized him, sits by the steps watching the liberals and the Islamist in New York City debating the nature of reality, the structure of truth and whether 9/11 was an inside job. The Islamist speaker in the Malaysian forum, holding a Japanese-LIBERAL-made microphone, occasionally checking time on his Swiss-LIBERAL-made Omega SA watch he got from his wife who works in that Big-Four neo-LIBERAL accounting firm, wearing a new retro Travolta-styled haircut he got the week before from a UNISEX hair saloon housed in that LIBERAL-Kuala Lumpur mall build by ultra-neo-LIBERALS schooled in post-post Friedmanian economics while his head contemplates the perfect Islamic society ruled by the Khalifah whose early appearance is in the form of an Imam Al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS …

Connections in the brain are made; none of the speakers debating which is better and more moral — Islam or Liberalism — while thinking about what is for lunch.

Averrosian dilemma

We must journey into each other’s minds and speak of this prison-house of language. We could find a way to resolve contradictions, if we believe that “philosophy can clip the wings of angels’ and see, as the German poet Rainer Rilke once said, how “angels can be terrifying.”

As AlRushd, or again, Averroes, in the great Renaissance master-painter Raphael’s work, The School of Athens, glanced upwards waiting for Plato and Aristotle to come down the steps of the Academy, hoping that the philosophers par excellence of the Hellenistic period would say “Hi” to him and thank him for doing those Arabic translated work to add to the corpus of the body of knowledge of the ars liberalis, or the arts of the free Man that will eventually become building blocks to the Enlightenment period first, Renaissance next, Age of Discovery and Exploration, Age of Science, to Age of the Application of Scientific Principles, and next Age of Industrialization to Age of Machines, to Age of Thinking Machines to Spiritual Machines to Machines installed in Gardens of Eden, to Age of Neural Networks to Computing to High-Speed Computing, to the Age of post-Humanism-Cyberneticism and Bio-chip Implantation — this evolutionary period of paradigmatic changes in human consciousness as technology, culture, and human genomics come into play, Al Rushd/Averroes asked: what must people argue if these exist in oppositional nature of ideas as in this raging yet useless debate between “Islam” and “liberalism,”

And thus, Averroes sat on the steps wandering, those great thinkers of the Age of Philosophy, that Axial Age of Spirituality, that Athens of the 5th. century BC, now long gone passed the spot where he sat, like the great beggar Diogenes; Averroes still wonder till late that night. Where did Islam go wrong in thinking that 5000 years of globalization of ideas of Man has ended up in the impossibility of a marriage between the LIBERALS and the RELIGIONISTAS.

Shall I unleash more questions on the nature of Man, Matter, God and the Universe and all then, so that not only Descartes can benefit from my musings but the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria will not come into being in the early 21st. Century? So that the idea of the Mutazillahs will reign supreme over pre-Wahabbi and Salafi notion of what must a human being be, and how must society look like, and what will be the nature of the State as it tries to define itself in the framework of this idea of the Ummah? 

And isn’t Philosophy more superior than Religion and Spirituality? I don’t know, as Socrates would say.

And Averroes could not sleep that night. Under the stars, under the clear blue sky painted by the Italian master Raphael, he wondered: have we, from the fall of the Empire of Uthmaniyah right up till the 21st. century taken the wrong semiotic turn?

I invite you to participate in this dialogue with this question as a recap: How must Islam be re-imagined, in an age of increasing certitude and global dominance of Islamism, especially in the ever-growing call by zealots of the Salafi and Wahabbi-type to establish the (elusively framed) idea of the “Islamic State”?

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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