The Page, Chapter 38, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

The nights slide away, and I always confront this page. I must believe that it is an open page. Despite the grease, scribbles, mistakes, and the offensive nonsense, I must believe it is an open page. If the page is not open, then what is the point of the burning midnight oil and the edged quills, and what is the point of the nights and days?


I close my eyes and think there must be much more that we could say. In a world plagued with screeches and screams, diatribes and sound-bites, sermons and pleas, there must be much more we could say. “Say: If the ocean was ink for the words of my Lord…” (18:109). Oceans would expire before the words and wisdom of God, but we, as the agents of God, what do we have to say? No, the book written this century does not even include our miserable page.


I search my heart for a joyful emotion by which to greet the century, but I must not rely on my brain. I must neutralize my agitated rationality with an anesthetic of hopeful faith. Yet, I must confess that I am frustrated by the arbitrary divisions of history; by the spoilation of time, and by our torpid pace.

We entered this century colonized, but are we any freer today? For us, in what way is this a new century? For us, the nineteenth century did not end until the 1940s, and in the 1970s we plunged into an even darker age. In the 1990s, the slaughter, degradation, and humiliation all continue Will the year 2001 suddenly herald a new age?


History compiles the book, and we confront the page. In this century, our page is not full of inquiries, investigations, and vibrant debates. Our page is inscribed with anxious affirmations, defensive proclamations, and arrogant declarations; in this century we confront the risk of a closed page.

We started this century calling for ijtihad, dreaming of shura, musing over the Shari‘a, babbling over women’s rights, and persistently speaking of a bygone golden age. What is the difference today? What is the difference in our language, themes, or rhetoric? What added knowledge or enlightenment have we attained in the past hundred years? We still adore activism, abhor intellectualism, and happily learn our religion from pamphleteers. We are still impressed by data banks, persuaded by anecdotes, and think that the point of history and law is to affirm our adolescent dreams. Ma sha’ Allah, we’ve turned our brains into data processors before they invented PC’s, and our intellectualism consists of a fulmination of e-mails.


What progress have we achieved? We advanced by printing gorgeous book covers, by learning that the West is bad, and that instead of clapping we should do takbir. What can I say, we started with Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905), Mahmud Shaltut (d. 1963) and Rashid Rida (d. 1935) and ended with Bin Bazz (d. 1999) and al-‘Uthaymiyyin (b. 1929-).


I chide myself for the pessimism that threatens to descend into misanthropy. It is a sin not to see the wonders and beauty of God in God’s human beings. But it is truth that makes me see the fustian age of Muslims as an utter frivolity. I need not go further than three days in last November in order to feel I am slipping into a civilizational breach. Since the beginning of this century we have been meeting in councils, assemblies, and conventions to address what in the old homeland they call issues of destiny (al-qadaya al-masiriyya). These are ecclesiastical-like congregations, which attempt to fabricate an enforced orthodoxy. These are councils of fantasized ijma‘, which ignore the rich legacy of diverse traditions, conflicting opinions, and liberating indeterminacy. Like a medieval Christian council of God’s Truth, these congregations produce a liturgy of proclamations and declarations, which seal the discourses of centuries in a matter of days. Instead of our mindless paltering, we respond, not by critical analysis and debate, but by slipping into a paretic state.


At the end of this century and in the United States, an honorable and impressive list of jurists met in Detroit, Michigan. Adorned by a title no less grand than the Shari‘a Scholars Association of North America, in three days in November, and according to their declaration, after “extensive discussion and debate and commentary on the presentations made,” the scholars reached conclusions in the form of a double-spaced, thirteen-page declaration. The matters discussed and resolved were no less than: 1) Custom and its place in Islamic law; 2) Purchasing homes through traditional banking facilities and interest-taking; 3) Divorce, remunerative divorce (khul‘), and judicially imposed separation; 4) The role of arbitration in divorce proceedings; 5) Dealing with conflicts between Islamic and Civil Laws; 6) Duties and competence of Imams in divorce contexts; 7) Political participation; and 8) Sighting the crescent and its relationship to the two ‘Ids.


Half of the thirty-eight or so scholars have never lived in the United States, the vast majority have never stepped foot into an American courtroom, and at least half live under corrupt and oppressive governments, and yet, these issues were discussed and decided in three days. Despite my friendship and high regard for some of them, my alienation feels extreme. When in our history have we had a Shari‘a association or council? When in our history has the Will of God, instead of being searched, been debated and declared? When have jurists lapsed legal and factual determinations, decided issues with a dogmatic knowledge of context, and crossed oceans to issue dictates? When in our history has ijma‘ been asserted in councils, and when, instead of the schools of thought, juristic discourses, books, and papers, fatawa and counter-fatawa, preponderance of evidence and preference, have we become a culture of oil-nourished plutocracy?


The sad truth is that, despite the turn of the century, we are not writing a new page. Our well-oiled century began in the 1970s and we are still drowning in fields of easy money, easy conclusions, easy solutions, and pro-forma discussions. And, because the Muslim oil-century is not about to end in the year 2001, and because our papers are greasy, full of stains and scribbles, and devoid of meaning, I will wait to celebrate the new century when I can find a clean new page.