Still Working for Allah in the West: Theory and Methodology
Talking about Standards
If Islam means anything, it means standards – the highest and the best and the most wonderful standards possible in every single area of human interest or activity. Islam continually raises the bar of excellence in everything human beings do. So much so that there comes a time when a Muslim more or less cries out: There is none better than me.
Can you handle this, do you think? You got your seatbelts on? I suggest you pull them on and buckle up. The ride in this book may be just a tiny bit bumpy.
Did you ever hear words that sound like Ana Khairukum …I am the best among you? I will let you figure out the rest.
Do you think you and I can say with a straight face things like “I am Britain!” and “I am America” – “I am the best Briton there is” and “I am the best American there is”?
No? Sorry, I don’t have the time and the resources to explain at this time. Let us just be content then being “Mr. Cairo” or “I am Mr. Pakistan.”
In any case, if you looked carefully at Islam, you would notice that Islam is not for fools. At least that is what the Qur’an says – and I take my Islam from the Qur’an. It is not for idiots and nincompoops and also-rans. It is not for second-raters who are content to live out their lives through default and care nothing about the higher possibilities of human existence on earth.
To me Islam is neither a refuge nor an excuse for either ineptitude or malfeasance of any hue or description. Nor is Islam a substitute for all that is required of human beings – any human being anywhere – to make a success of life on earth. Even though – make no mistake about this – the tent of Allah’s mercy and grace is large enough to accommodate everyone – even the worst and the most wretched and hopeless ones among us.
Therefore, I have no hesitation in asking of us the same standards when it comes to literature on Islam – which to me includes everything written on anything from an Islamic perspective. That is my definition of Islamic literature. The list is headed by Allah’s own book, the Qur’an – in its original Arabic. Translations are just that: translations. They are not the Qur’an.
In that glorious book inhere the highest standards of beauty and excellence – of diction, meaning and impact. Anyone who combines sufficient knowledge with an adequate level of human integrity can have no difficulty in bearing testimony to that effect.
Then comes the Hadith – another collection of joy and beauty, where the most authentic part of it is concerned. Then comes all that has been written by all the others over all the ages past.
In more recent times, this includes the works of Iqbal and Abul A’la Maududi in Urdu; of Hasanul Banna and Sayyid Qutb in Arabic; and of Iqbal and Ali Shari’ati in Farsi. Where Islamic literature of the highest quality is concerned, the days of true glory for the English language are still ahead. They are yet to be. Even though some good books are beginning to emerge.
But that is the gold standard we need to aim at – the highest and the best. There is no substitute for it. My problem always has been having to be relegated to second-class citizenship in the name of Islam – to the non-negotiable status of an also-ran – when I never did accept that position in life on any other account.
It did not make much sense to me that those of us whom Allah had blessed to be able to look the world in the eye and make it blink, to whom the sky was never the limit, who expected nothing but the best and highest standards of excellence from themselves and those around them, the same people would suddenly be asked to lower their expectations just because they were now using Islam as a platform and a premise.
In other words, we would produce higher quality work when we do it for the world. But when it comes to doing it for Allah, we will accept a serious downward revision of our standards. I find that incomprehensible – and shameful. And in a way it tells you the whole story – every time we resort to this we compromise our own life and future in this world, not to say the next world.
But to produce that level of work in English, we need – along with all the other things – mastery of the English language. And when I say this I mean true mastery of the language of the level and type of Keats, Milton, Shakespeare, Whitman or Shaw and not just the technical competence of someone who has memorized a few grammar books or holds a PhD in some subject.
Maududi, Iqbal, Banna, Qutb and Shari’ati did not just write on Islam and Muslims in Urdu, Arabic and Farsi. They produced some of the finest and most forceful literature – as in English literature of the Shakespeare kind – in those languages on subjects Islamic. Their works are among the most beautiful and powerful in the world in those languages. I don’t see why we should want or expect or accept anything less when it comes to Islamic literature in the English language.
Iqbal, Maududi, Banna, Qutb and Shari’ati – and others of their type and caliber – accomplished such amazing feats of writing for a number of reasons. First, their language – whether Arabic, Urdu or Farsi – was their handmaiden; and they were its masters. Not the other way around. Today, most of us operate at a level where we are the slaves of language, not its masters. They were the free spirits of their language; we are constrained by the straitjacket of its limitations at every turn. As a result, their writings are a delight to read, ours are generally a pain.
Second, they knew their Islam inside out, and it was not through rote learning that they learned it. They were people for whom Allah had opened the doors of the house of Islam. They got inside the house and then closed those doors shut behind them. Then the whole place was lit up for them with the light of Allah – Bi-Nurillah – and they saw all that they needed to see. And they poured that Nur of Allah in the form of black ink on white paper – and in the form of their speeches and conversations.
As a result, all they saw and heard was Islam – not a thing else (yes, why don’t you correct my English here?). So, when they wrote about Islam, they were simply cataloging and describing what lay all around them in the form of treasures in the house of Islam that they were in.
They merely described the spectacle their eyes saw. How beautifully Iqbal puts this idea in Farsi:
Qalandar Anchay Goyad, Deedah Goyad
Whatever a man of God says, he says it only after seeing it.
The word Qalandar means a person who is totally absorbed in Allah – and lost to the world. These were people to whom Allah made manifest his signs outside them in the vast expanse of their environment as well as right inside themselves. So, they spoke with the authority and conviction of eyewitnesses. Where is the wonder if the world folded up at their feet?
They were mini-, micro- and nano-rasuls of Allah in a Rasul-less age. They were the true Ulama’ of this Ummah that carried the torch of Rasul, Sallallahu Alaihi wa Sallam, in this vast wilderness of our contemporary world after the Risalat ended with Muhammad, Sallallahu Alaihi wa Sallam. The torches they carried in their hands may have been modern – the ink, the pen, the paper, the printing presses, the microphones, the cameras, the assorted recording devices – but the flame itself was lit 1400 years ago. And it was the same flame that had set the world alight forever – from Adam and Noah on down. Here is a Hadith:
'Ulama’ Ummati Ka-Ambyaa’ Bani Israa-eel.
Scholars of my Ummah are like the prophets of the children of Israel.
So, the literature they produced was of a very different kind and caliber. And that is the level of literature we want for and in the English language – for the Western Wing of the Muslim Ummah, and for the rest of the world in this post-Iqbal, post-Maududi, post-Banna, post-Qutb, post-Shari’ati age. Islamic thinking needs to be moved forward to meet the demands of a new century at the threshold of a new millennium – whether it is Christian or Muslim – in an entirely new sociopolitical and cultural context, especially in the West.
Third, even beyond this, their view and vision of Islam were celestial. And since they saw what they saw with the light of Allah, Subhanahu wa Ta’ala, their view of Islam and of the world was not a narrow or fragmented one but a global and epochal one.
Fourth, they in general understood their world well, though not always completely. As a result, their application of Islam in the world was subject not only to the constraints of time and space but also to some rather serious limitations of their own when it came to analyzing, understanding and coming to terms with the world they lived in. The very utopianism and idealism that made their writings so powerful worked paradoxically to limit their practical success during their own lifetime. We need to learn from both – from their successes as well as from their limitations. I am sorry I will have to leave this discussion incomplete – again, due to considerations of time and resources.
As for our own ability and qualifications in the West for coming up with that level of work, let me ask you this: Isn’t hundreds of years of colonization by the British, and decades of living in English-speaking societies, enough to make us want to aim for those high standards for Islamic literature in the English language? I cannot comment on other European languages like French, Spanish or German because I am not familiar with them.
END OF CHAPTER 10
Still Working for Allah in the West: Theory and Methodology
© 2003 Syed Husain Pasha
Dr. Pasha is an educator and scholar of exceptional
talent, training and experience. He can be reached at DrSyedPasha [at]
AOL [dot] com or www.IslamicSolutions.com.