The Remembrance, Chapter 58, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

Those overwhelmed by the weight of their legacy will disown it, but those without a history will invent it, and both are doomed to repeat all their past mistakes. One lives in the consolation of a lie, and the other, if confronted by the truth, waives it away. Uprooted by oblivion and dispossessed of an identity, we settle in fictions of relativity where our boundaries blur and fade. Don’t you see that those without a homeland in history are branded as aliens wherever they are invited to stay? Without the anchor of history, we live from thought to thought, pulled and shoved by every trend and wave. Some will ground themselves in the rigor of philosophy, but most will live from sight to mind, nursing their fluctuating identity with a whimsical sense of faith.


My visit with this glorious Conference is coming to an end, and I pray that I will be deemed worthy enough to be permitted to transform or, at least, that I will be invited again. This Conference had become the bridge to many repressed memories, and the rediscovery of my sense of balance and dignity. Now, I pounce in the streets with a smile on my face telling everyone who finds me:


“I have foundations, I have roots, I have a history, I have a homeland on this earth, I have my own intellectual space. I have delved into the depth of my brain, cleansed the dust and cobwebs of forgetfulness, and chased so many ghosts away. I now know who I am, and my attention is turned to who I want to be.” If it hadn’t been for a sense of humility and a bashful nature, I would yell, “Embrace me, for my roots and anchor can perhaps offer you a repose of stability.”


As I rummaged through the files of memories, I recalled an incident nestled in silence, but now it spoke again. An old sheet of paper reminded me of a time when my young age blessed me with remarkable energy fueled by gleeful hopefulness. I spoke my mind in a way that, at times, bordered on insolence.


Years ago, I was in a conference organized by the Islamic Society of North America with the usual list of speakers and with the customary fanfare. I sat in the audience listening to a panel on “Conflict Resolutions in Mosques.” There were a couple of speakers who waltzed with words, and since I don’t dance, I was utterly bored. A bearded young fellow with green eyes and Egyptian skin was the last to speak. His bashfulness intrigued me in such a bombastic atmosphere. He talked about a mosque in his hometown that had been plagued by disputes and in-fighting between Wahhabis and Sufis and some other factions as well. The dispute disintegrated into fistfights with lawsuits and legal injunctions flying all over the place. The judge assigned to the case appointed our Egyptian-colored friend to act as an arbitrator in the case. I am not sure what the procedural posture was, or what were the rules by which everyone had to play, but our friend explained that he sought to arbitrate the matter according to the dictates of Islamic law, and that all the parties to the conflict agreed that Islamic law should be dispositive in this case. In his presentation, our friend quoted the Qur'anic verse: “All the mosques belong to God, so do not call upon anyone else but God” (72:18). He then proceeded to talk about the unprecedented nature of this case, after which he addressed the by-laws of the mosque, the deed of trust, the wishes of the fighting parties, and other similarly fascinating things. I listened attentively, engaged by the approach rather than the substance of what was said. I searched what he said for what would resound in me with a sense of authenticity and legitimacy. Instead, I felt abandoned in a syncretistic world where holes are plugged and covered by patches drawn from scraps and pieces from here and there. There was no synchronism or synthesis or sense of symmetry or proportionality between the conservatism of legitimacy and the excitements of creativity—between the respect for precedents and the irreverence of originality.


After the lecture, I arranged to meet with the fellow and he kindly indulged me. After the kind salutations, I jumped on the subject with great zeal.


“Brother,” I said, “you spoke of arbitrating a conflict within a mosque, and if I understood you correctly, you sought the guidance of Islamic law on the matter, but I did not fully understand how you phrased the issue or the problem you had to deal with?”


“The issue,” he stated, “is how to resolve the conflict between the brothers in the mosque. The Wahhabis could not live with the Sufis, and the Sufis could not live with the Wahhabis. The situation quickly disintegrated to the point of fistfights in the mosque and, as you know, the mosque is the house of God, and such behavior cannot be tolerated.”


“Yes, yes,” I agreed. “This is a common problem in the United States. Many mosques seem to suffer from discord whether on theological or ethnic grounds. But I guess I am wondering about some of your premises. For example, how do we know that a mosque is the house of God?”


He looked surprised and spoke somewhat condescendingly, “Well, brother, you should know that the Qur’an clearly says that mosques belong to God, and that no one should be worshipped other than God in God’s abode. Furthermore, the Sunna of the Prophet is clear on this point, mosques belong to God.”


“Ah, yes, I see,” I nodded. “So what was the issue with which you had to deal?”


“The issue, my brother, was how to resolve the conflict between the fighting parties in the mosque.”


“But brother,” I exclaimed, “I fear that the issue is rather vaguely stated. We can resolve a conflict by the application of rational thought. We can also resolve a conflict by following customary practices or probing contractual expectations. We can even resolve a conflict by an entirely irrational process like tossing a coin, or perhaps we can apply a principle of utility, and count votes, or we can hold an auction and surrender the mosque to the highest bidder. I guess my problem is that I was not clear as to the method you chose to pursue.”


He was becoming impatient with my intellectual dullness, “As I explained to you brother," he said, "mosques belong to God, and so the only standard is the law of God, and that is what I enforced.”


“All right,” I stated. “I will concede that mosques are the houses of God. But should we apply the law of God to God’s property because it is capable of producing the best rational results, or because God wants us to do so, or because the parties to the dispute agree that the law of God should be applied? I want to know why we apply God’s law to God’s mosques.”


“First,” he commented with an air of credulity, “it stands to reason that if mosques belong to God, then God can and does set the rules for His home. Second, the parties agreed that God’s law is controlling, and third, if you are a Muslim, you must believe that God’s law will produce the best results—this is a matter of faith. If you don’t believe in the wisdom of God’s law, you are not a Muslim.”


I asked, “What if the parties do not want the law of God to apply?”


“The parties do not want the law of God to apply!” he exclaimed. “Then I would say they usurped God’s home—they are like guests in a home who refuse to respect the will of the host.”


“So having accepted the argument that a mosque belongs to God, it would make sense for them to follow God’s rules in God’s home?”


“Yes, absolutely.”


“Could there be a mosque that does not belong to God?” I inquired.


“If all mosques belong to God,” he responded, “then what does not belong to God is not a mosque. Don’t you know that God said in his glorious Book, ‘Say, my Lord has commanded justice and [commanded] that you [should] set your whole selves to God at every mosque, and that you pray to God with sincere devotion. Such as God created you in the beginning so shall you return’ (7:29). The point is that God lays claim to every mosque.”


I continued in his line of thinking, “And, so whatever is so-called ‘owned privately’ is not a mosque?”


“I would say it is a prayer area, not a mosque.”


“Okay, brother, what if I disagree with you and say, the earth is God’s mosque, and that the construction of walls to close off a particular area is irrelevant? How do we resolve this conflict? By the use of reason? By the best rational argument? By reference to accepted social practices, or what? By evaluating different types of evidence?”


“As I keep telling you, if you are a Muslim, you resolve the dispute by referring to the Will of God as manifested in God’s law—this is an article of faith, not something that I am willing to debate with you. It is like believing that God is good or just or eternal; it is an article of faith, not something that I am willing to prove.”


It was clear that he was becoming impatient, and so I decided I better move my point along. “Yes, yes,” I said, “what is an article of faith is like a faith-based foundation upon which you build other things. It is the starting point and the premise. It is an assumption that you make before you commence your analysis. It is like assuming democracy is good, or torture is bad, or oppression is wrong.


“Fine, I am willing to concede that mosques belong to God and that the definition of a mosque is a matter of Divine Decree. It is like God saying, ‘If you want to build Me a home, here are my rules, and if you do not follow the rules, I will not take title to the home.’ I will also concede that the rules of conduct in that home are to be set by the owner of the home. God decides what is appropriate conduct in God’s home. We are guests who must abide by the host’s rules; otherwise we are not welcome. I will concede all of this not because I agree with the structure of your argument, but because I can make a different argument that would lead to the same results. Do you want to hear my argument?”


“No,” he curtly responded.


“Brother,” I said, “bear with me. I am just trying to understand why we do things the way we do and what is the point of what we do. It seems to me that everything you said indicates the primacy of the Divine Will. It seems that we know what we know either by the use of faith or reason, and I would include a systematic sense of intuition as part of the use of reason. We know, by the use of faith or reason, that God does not need a home. But we also know, by the use of faith or reason, that God owns everything in existence. Why are mosques in particular described as the houses of God (buyut Allah)? We are willing to assume this should be accepted as a matter of faith—it is so because God says so. This is the same, for instance, when we consider whether a mosque must be clean and pure. We know that a mosque should be kept clean and pure because we find evidence that this is what God wants. This is what I want to call a faith-based argument. A faith-based argument asserts that one should do this or that, not because it is good or just or efficient, but because God wants it so. A rational-based argument asserts that we should do this or that because it is good, just, or efficient. What I mean by a faith-based argument is an argument that is premised on a faith-based foundation. The foundation of the argument is not rational proof or considerations of efficiency, but a basic belief and conviction. This argument is accountable and accessible only in a limited way and only to a limited audience. So, for instance, if I say mosques should be pure, and you say, why? My justification might ultimately rest on the Divine Will. You might say, well, I can show you that it is not a good or reasonable idea to keep mosques pure. I will say that I don’t care; you can only persuade me by showing me that God wants mosques to be impure. I would say this is a faith-based argument because one can be held accountable for holding this belief only to the extent the faith-based argument is related to the faith-based foundation. What I mean by ‘holding someone accountable’ is to demand that someone provide the details of their evidence and processes of analysis. A faith-based argument is accessible only to those who hold the same belief.


“If establishing that a mosque should be pure is based on evidence of the Divine Will, then it is a faith-based argument premised on a faith-based foundation. A faith-based foundation is not accessible or accountable—it is a belief that could be based on idiosyncratic experience or no experience at all. It could be the result of a dream or a vision or a sense of tranquility. A faith-based argument is accessible and accountable only to the extent that it is dependent on the faith-based foundation. So, for instance, if I start with the assumption that I believe in God and that I am a Muslim, that is a faith-based foundation. I also start with the assumption that the Qur’an is the literal, immutable, and unerring Word of God—that is a faith-based foundation as well. If I say, since the Qur’an is the Word of God, I believe it contains the commands of God—this is a faith-based argument that flows from a faith-based foundation. From the point of view of reason, it is possible for a Divine book to exist that does not contain the commands of God. But, to me, this does not matter, I don’t care about this possibility because I believe that the Qur’an does, in fact, contain the commands of God, and that is why my belief is a faith-based foundation.


“Now, I read in the Qur’an that mosques are the houses of God, and also read that these houses must be kept pure. If I say, ‘I will accept this at face value,’ it is reasonable to say that the belief in the status of a mosque as God’s home, and the necessity of keeping mosques pure is related to my faith-based foundations. However, and this is an important point, the process by which I search for the Divine Will and evaluate the evidence is a reason-based process. For instance, the search for the definition of purity, or the factual adjudication as to whether a specific structure is a mosque, is a part of a reason-based process.


Here, it is important to distinguish between a reason-based process and a faith-based process, and between a faith-based argument and a faith-based process. I understand the faith-based argument to be basically a justification or explanation. The argument does not explore or discover anything; it simply demonstrates the way that the conclusions are consistent with the foundations. I arrived at the belief that a mosque should be pure, not by non-justifiable means, but by a justifiable process of analyzing evidence. I arrived at the conclusion that mosques should be pure by a rational-based process because the process relies on the collection and evaluation of evidence. But it is a rational-based process only if one accepts my assumptions (foundations). A faith-based process is very different—it does not rely on rational process, evaluations, or evidence. A faith-based process relies on entirely irrational steps to reach a conclusion. The irrational steps are entirely non-accountable and inaccessible. The irrational steps are like revelation, visions, or dreams. The faith-based process could be consistent or inconsistent with my faith-based foundations. For instance, if my faith-based foundations assert that only the Prophet receives Divine Revelation, it would not be consistent if I claim that I know the law because I received revelation. If I make that type of claim, one would say, ‘okay, but you need to revise your faith-based foundations.’


“Now, more to point: The issue you were lecturing about concerned the rules of conduct in a mosque. Well, we can make rational deductions from the premises that we accept as God’s Will. So, for instance, if God says, not to have conjugal relations in a mosque (2:187), we will probably accept the fact that we should not have conjugal relations in the mosque as a matter of faith—as God’s Will. We are not going to evaluate the wisdom of the command or whether the command is consistent with the function of the mosque. But we can explore, by the use of reason, the finding of, the meaning of, or the implications of the command. So there is an irrational component to our inquiry, which is the Divine Will. It is irrational in the sense that whatever is ascertained to be the Divine Will is accepted as mandatory as a matter of faith. It is rational only to the extent that it is consistent with my faith-based foundations. There is also another rational component, and that is the finding of, the deductions from, and consequences of the Divine Will. So even if we accept that we should not have conjugal relations, we might still ask what is having conjugal relations? Is it intercourse only or does it include lesser sexual acts? Is it limited to sexual acts alone, or does it include non-sexual acts as well? Can we kiss or hug or dance or eat in a mosque? The answer will follow from a rational process of analysis. The rational process of analysis will first ascertain whether God has a Will as to these specific acts. Does God perceive these acts in one way or another? If God has a Will as to these acts, we will eventually need to ask whether the Divine Will trumps the human will because of the possibility that the human will might be inconsistent with the Divine Will. I am willing to concede because of my faith-based foundation that the Divine Will should trump the human will, so this point need not detain us. But then the next question is, assuming that God does have a specific Will as to acts such as hugging, kissing, dancing, or eating in a mosque, we must ask, does God want us to observe or obey His will on the matter? If we conclude that God does want us to comply with God’s Will, the next question is, how do we discover this Divine Will?”


As I explained, in my view, the process of collecting and evaluating the evidence is a rational process—the foundations or premises are a matter of faith, but the process of collecting and evaluating the evidence is a matter of reason. The reason-based process will be premised on a faith-based foundation. For instance, if we have a tradition that says, Do not do impure acts in the mosque. Then, accepting the wisdom or truth of this injunction might be a matter of faith that rationally flows from the faith-based foundation. Importantly, deciding on the relevance of this injunction to the problem at hand or any specific fact pattern is a matter of reason. I could evaluate different pieces of evidence that seem to be relevant to the issue. Deciding on what is relevant is a matter of reason, or deciding what the totality of the evidence would seem to require of us, is a matter of reason. For example, asserting that the totality of the evidence seems to prohibit kissing in the mosque is the product of a process of reasoning, and deciding that the specific act involved in a specific case is all the result of reason. But deciding that I must comply with the law, whatever I think it is, is justifiable by faith.


He shuffled and shifted and glanced at me and then snapped, “All this faith-based this and faith-based that—what is your point? Get to the point. What do you want to say? What is the use of all this slicing and dicing—you remind me of the picklers in Egypt who sit in the street slicing vegetables and then dumping it in a big barrel of confusion.”


I felt hurt, but I was intrigued by the image of the picklers—I used to watch them in Egypt with great fascination. My intrigue only ignited my determination, for these were the days of hope and zeal. With a new burst of energy I said, “Brother, I am simply trying to establish simple rules for accessibility and accountability. I want us to agree that a faith-based foundation is not subject to accountability and is not accessible to someone who does not share the foundation. I also want us to agree that a reason-based foundation is subject to accountability and is accessible to anyone who will investigate with reasoning behind the foundation. I want to establish that a faith-based argument, unlike a reason-based argument, is an argument that relies on elements that can only be shared by particular group of people. I want us to agree that a faith-based process is also not accountable and not accessible. For example, saying I know what God wants because I had a vision or dream, or I know what God wants because God speaks to me, is a faith-based process. The only thing a listener can do is either believe the claim, or not believe it. It cannot be verified or rationally evaluated. But a faith-based foundation does not preclude the use of a reason-based process. If I am weighing and evaluating evidence, this is a reason-based process. For instance, I can start out by saying, I believe in Islamic law, and I believe that Islamic law should guide my life. This foundation is accepted as a matter of faith. But the process of searching for and evaluating what is Islamic law is a reason-based process because it depends on gathering and reasoning through the various pieces of evidence. But I want to go further and make another claim. I claim that if one pursues a faith-based process that is not consistent with the Divine Will (or one’s faith-based foundation), one is committing a grave sin. Why? Because pursuing a faith-based process involves the act of exercising legislative sovereignty. But in the case of Islam, an act of sovereignty gains its legitimacy only from the Divine Will, or at least, this is what we seem to agree upon. Using a faith-based process to reach a faith-based foundation runs the real risk of usurping God’s legislative sovereignty. Suppose, for example, that one day I say, ‘Part of my faith-based foundation is that all Muslims must not eat apples.’ You come to me and say, ‘This prohibition of apples is very strange, and I will show you by a careful analysis of the evidence that eating apples is allowed in Islam.’ To this I respond, ‘I have pursued a faith-based process and adopted this belief as a faith-based foundation, and, therefore, I am not interested in your evidence. Regardless of the weight of evidence or any process of evaluation, this is my firm belief.’ Now, either my belief that apples are prohibited is dependent and derivative from the Divine Will or it is not. If it is not derivative from the Divine Will, then it is an act of legislation without authorization, and a Muslim who believes in the supremacy of the Divine Will will think that my claim is without legitimacy. If my belief that apples are prohibited is, in fact, derived from the Divine Will, then there are two options. Either this belief is based on a faith-based process (I had a vision or I received revelation), or this belief is based on a reason-based process (I looked at the evidence). If the argument is based on a vision or some other idiosyncratic experience, I would need to know why this individual vision is relevant to me. Even if I believe that your vision is relevant to me, I must recognize that there is a privity between you and God—God chose to reveal to you what God did not choose to reveal to others. But then we have a problem because it is a tenet of belief in Islam that all revelation ceased with the death of the Prophet. So how can we justify the idea of privity between you and God without reevaluating other faith-based foundations of the religion?


“Now, I want to make another claim that is even more aggressive than what I said so far. I think that a reason-based process cannot create a faith-based foundation. Earlier, I might have intimated that one can start by evaluating and weighing the evidence as to an issue (i.e., using a reason-based process) and then reach a faith-based foundation. But, in truth, I don’t think this is possible. If one starts by rationally evaluating the evidence on a matter, then the conclusions reached are always subject to evaluation and criticism on the basis of the evidence. On any legal or theological point, if you rationally evaluated the evidence then you have used a method that is both accessible and accountable to someone who shares your premises or assumptions. If, after evaluating the evidence, you declare that your conclusions are not open to reevaluation or criticism because they have become a faith-based foundation, I would say that the rational-based process has become entirely irrelevant to your belief and you cannot cite it in support of your beliefs. You can only cite a faith-based process. This would throw us back to evaluating your faith-based process vis-à-vis God’s sovereignty. In a nutshell, what this means is that any point of theology or law that was reached on the basis of the evaluation of the evidence can and should be criticized and evaluated on the basis of the evidence. From my perspective, if you make a point about Islamic law or theology and you are not willing to discuss the evidence, that means you are saying your belief is not accessible or accountable, and, therefore, I may safely ignore you.”


When I stopped talking, I noticed he was looking around, apparently trying to find an escape from the pleasure of my company. When his efforts proved in vain, he turned to me and proclaimed, “Brother, all I have to say to you is you are engaging in the forbidden kalam [theological disputations] and in the cursed language of philosophers. Both are prohibited because God has forbidden the use of reason in all matters.”


I quickly retorted, “You are wrong on all counts. One, let me be very clear about this: I am not a philosopher, and I have not mastered philosophy. I am making distinctions that seem sensible to me. If you think my distinctions are flawed, then advise me of which distinctions should be made instead. Two, I would like you to know that I like picklers and I take offense to what you said about them. Three, what is your evidence that God prohibited the use of reason? Is this a rational conclusion that you somehow reached, or is this your own sovereign legislation on God’s behalf? If so, show me evidence that there is privity between you and God. I should add that in the Qur’an, God condemns hawa (whim) but endorses reason. In fact, God uses reason to refute the whimsical irrationality of the unbelievers. Furthermore, what you just said does not make much sense to me. Isn’t it the rational workings of the brain that weigh the authenticity of the Qur’an versus the authenticity of the Sunna? Isn’t it the rational workings of the brain that determine the authenticity or relevance or weight of the evidence? If God says no conjugal relations in the mosque, isn’t it the rational workings of the brain that identify the meaning of conjugal relations in this context or evaluate the criteria to determine whether a specific structure is, in fact, a mosque? Faith is like certain assumptions one makes for the sake of argument, but reason does all the rest. Faith is what determines that the Qur’an is the word of God, or that Muslims should take what the Qur’an says to heart, or that the Prophet should be obeyed. But reason determines the understanding of the full meaning and implications of something that is accepted as a matter of faith. Reason determines the deductions we can make from something that is accepted as a matter of faith. Finally, kalam is not a dirty word. It is a part of our heritage, and we should consider it for whatever it is worth. And, for your information, what I am saying has nothing to do with kalam, it is the same type of discourse you will find in books of usul al-fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).”


“Okay, fine,” he proclaimed, “but I don't know what you are getting at. What does all of this have to do with resolving the conflict in the mosque?”


“My basic question is: When you resolved the conflict in the mosque, were you implementing your own will, the will of the parties, or the Will of God?”


“As I keep telling you, the mosque is baytu Allah (the house of God), and I was implementing the Will of God.”


“That is profound,” I rather maniacally exclaimed, “that is truly a weighty trust! And did you gain this position as a matter of faith or reason? Did God tell you that you will represent God’s Will, or did certain rational processes tell us that it makes sense to accept your decision as a binding representation of God’s Will?”


He dryly remarked, “The court appointed me, and the parties accepted me.”


I responded, “Then it seems that a rational process, induced by convenience or the logic of consent or the logic of institutional organizations, appointed and entrusted you.”


“Fine, what is your point?”


“Do we know what God thinks about your appointment?”


“We can only guess,” he said.


“But you assumed, as a matter of faith, that a mosque is the house of God, and proceeded to apply God’s rules in God’s house.”




“Your appointment did not come from God. It was the result of a process based on reason. But you were not appointed to apply your own reason, you were appointed to apply something else. In this particular case, that something else is the law of God.”


“Sure, fine.”


“But how did you find God’s rules? Did you use a faith-based process or a reason-based process?”


“Brother,” he yelled, “are you insane! Are you seriously suggesting that I was somehow dreaming up the law or receiving Divine Revelation? This is getting ridiculous.”


“Brother, in your presentation you made no reference to any evidence other than the Qur’anic verse you quoted. But, even more, you did not engage in a reason-based process that is premised on the Qur’anic verse quoted. It seemed to me that you arbitrated by reference to what the parties were willing to live with or by reference to the by-laws or by reference to conversations you had with some members of the congregation. These are entirely reasonable methods of resolving the conflict, but only if we make very different assumptions than the ones you made. It seems to me that the logic of your argument went something like this: ‘I will assume that this is God’s house, I will also assume that God has rules for His house and that these rules, as a matter of faith, must be obeyed. I will assume that God has a Will as to conflicts in mosques, and that God wants me to give effect to this Will. Yet, you proceeded to use common sense, yours and others, to establish God’s rules. This is not consistent with your premises or foundations unless you also claim that God’s rules are coextensive with your common sense or that God, in effect, told you that God’s rules can be located, evaluated, and implemented by the use of common sense. But you did not make such an argument, and, in fact, you explicitly rejected this idea. But then what was your methodology? You seemed to be saying, I know because I know. This could not have been a reason-based process, so it must have been a faith-based process. In effect, God’s Will turns out to be your will—God’s rules are what you decided the rules should be. This requires that I believe that you were chosen by God and given the power to articulate the rules, that there is privity between you and God, and not that you have been chosen by a rational process and given the burden of searching for God’s rules."


Understandably, he was angry and he raised his voice again, “So, you are saying that I enforced my whim and the whim of others instead of God’s law.”


“What I am saying is that your methodology confused me. You started out saying that the law of God applies, and I took it that you made this claim as a matter of faith. Then, you proceeded to cite largely sociological evidence and your own intuitions. This seems to me entirely acceptable as long as you acknowledge that the law of God turns on sociology and on your intuitions. Alternatively, you could claim, and perhaps we can then accept, that you effectively speak for God. If you are not willing to make either of these arguments, then I think you need to cite relevant evidence—you need to use a reason-based process that is consistent with your faith-based foundations. You need to tell us whether we should accept this evidence as a matter of reason or faith, and if you conclude that the evidence points to specific results, you need to make this argument in rational terms. You also need to rationally prove that the evidence applies to the set of facts before you in a particular way. If you are making a faith-based process, then your argument is neither accessible nor accountable, and if we don’t believe that you have some privity with God, we can all proceed with our lives.”


“Well,” he protested, “I could have rationally proven everything, but it would have taken forever.”


“No,” I quickly responded, “I don’t believe this is an excuse. You see, I think there is a short-cut to doing this if you are unwilling to do it yourself.”


“What short-cut?”


“The opinions, research, and deductive processes of those before you. I noticed that you did not cite a single authority other than yourself. In Islamic juristic discourses, there is a whole field named ahkam al-masajid (the rules that apply to mosques). Al-Zarakshi (d. 794/1392) has a multivolume work on the subject of mosques, their ownership, and how they may be run. There are a large number of responsa issued on these matters throughout the Islamic centuries that you could have researched and discussed. There are even legal judgments and opinions written by the Anglo-Muhammadan courts in India that directly relate to the issues that you were discussing. But you did not refer to a single juristic source.”


“Oh, I see,” he said with some relief, “this again! You are one of those people! This is all about citing authorities. No, brother, we Salafis believe that there is only the word of God, the words of the Prophet and us. As the saying goes, ‘They were men and we are men (humm rijalun wa nahnu rijal).’ We read the Divine text and we apply it, and we do not accept any mediators between us and the text. We do not worship schools or heads of schools, we do not care about what so and so said, or what this or that school of thought held. We only care about what God and the Prophet said.”


“Brother,” I replied, “I don't know who are the ‘those’ to whom you refer. But I have several responses to you. First, I already demonstrated to you that your approach to the problem relies on contradictory assumptions. You say, ‘No, they are not contradictory, and I am not acting on whim.’ I say fine, tell me what you are asserting as a matter of faith and Divine Will, and what you are asserting as a matter of reason, or the product of your own rational appraisal. I am asking you to do that so that I can evaluate your argument and decide whether I can share your faith or agree with your reason. You respond to me by saying, ‘Well, I don't have time.’ So I say, there is another way—you may search the sources that preserve the efforts of those before you. Find the approaches that you agree with and find the approaches that you disagree with. You can explain the approaches to me and critique them, and this way I can better fill in the gaps that you failed to make clear. For example, suppose that a mathematician has proven a certain theorem, and you come today and make a mathematical argument that is on the same exact point. But you do not have time to go through all the steps and prove to me what needs to be proven. So then a sensible starting point is to incorporate by reference the work of the mathematician, and then explain to me what you agree or disagree with. This is my first point.


My second point is the following: People before you have made the same search for evidence that you claim to have made. I find that they cited and analyzed more evidence than you did. They discuss Qur’anic versus, analyze the practice of the Prophet, refer to the precedent of the Companions, refer to overarching principles of Shari‘a, and then evaluate the implications of these overarching principles. You, on the other hand, did not do any of this, and I am not sure if you abstained from doing this because of a lack of diligence, or because you disagree with the efforts of these scholars, or because you think that what these scholars considered to be authoritative sources are not authoritative at all. I am left puzzled, and the only way I can evaluate your claim that you did not find relevant evidence, is to compare your claim to the product of other scholars.


My third point is this: You claimed to implement Islamic law. This begs the question: What do you mean by Islamic law? Do you mean the Qur’an and Sunna as revealed to you? Do you mean the Qur’an and Sunna as interpreted by you? Or, do you mean the Qur’an and Sunna as interpreted by you and others? Or, do you mean what other scholars at some unspecified point in time and place said is Islamic law? It is not clear to me which, if any of these, you mean. To the extent that your statement does not clarify this point, it leaves me confused. When I am listening to your talk, am I listening to your own school of thought and your own rational-based process? Am I listening to your school of thought and the other schools of thought as well? Is every school of thought in agreement with you? If they are not, should I ignore them and listen to you? But why? Is it because a reason-based process will prove you more correct and worthy? Or, is it because a faith-based process will prove you more representative of the Divine? All of this leaves me confused. 


The fourth point closely follows from the third. To the extent you claim to speak for Islamic law, you could reasonably anticipate that you are creating the impression in the minds of your audience that you are speaking for the full tradition of Islamic jurisprudence. When I say, for example, I am explaining American law, a reasonable listener will assume that I am representing more than my own unique and idiosyncratic individual reading of American legal sources. It is reasonable to assume that I am representing the totality of the American legal tradition on a certain point, and that I will explain the ways in which my own opinions agree or disagree with this totality. Consider a different example. If I talk about the rules of chess, communities of meaning will assume that I am talking about the rules of chess as it evolved through the ages. But if I am using the expression “rules of chess” to mean an individualistic re-interpretation of the game of chess, I am duty-bound to clarify this point. I think one can reasonably contend that religious communities create communities of meaning and communities of symbolism. In Islam, when one invokes the symbol of Islamic law, Muslims will reasonably assume that you are talking about the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the juristic opinions, old and new. But you are excluding juristic opinions from the symbol of Islamic law. Don’t you think you are duty-bound to clarify this point?


My fifth point is a point of wisdom. Let us assume that I am confronting a difficult technical problem in my work. I am told that such and such person had already faced this exact problem or a similar problem, and they managed to resolve it. What would you think if I proclaim that I don’t need anyone’s help and refuse to ask for anyone’s guidance? Wouldn’t you think this is rather arrogant, wasteful, and stupid? Ironically, you are refusing to use others as a reference point, but you are expecting others to use you as a reference point. If there are legal precedents on a certain point because previous jurists dealt with a similar problem, what is the justification for refusing to consult with those jurists, by consulting their books, and, yet, claim that your own treatment of the same or similar problem is a precedent for others? If you say, ‘Listen, I am not expecting others to follow my precedent,’ then why are you telling us about your experience with resolving this conflict? You are telling us because you think that your treatment is somehow relevant to future situations that might arise. Yet, you refuse to acknowledge the counsel of anyone who preceded you. This is a serious problem especially when I consider that the jurists who dealt with this problem before you were more learned and more aware of the relevant pieces of evidence.


My sixth and final point has to do with the evaluation of evidence. I believe, and perhaps you believe as well, that God instructs us to consult the learned when we confront challenging problems (16:43)(21:7). I also believe, and perhaps you believe as well, that God instructs us to conduct all affairs through a constant process of consultation (3:159)(42:38). I read what I would argue are rather clear Qur’anic commands, to consult the learned and to consult one another, as commands that include consulting with learned jurists, dead or alive. I reach this understanding through a reason-based process. Your methodology seems to exclude consulting with learned jurists, dead or alive, on points relating to God’s law, and I am at a loss to understand why. You seem to have consulted with the parties involved in the conflict, you consulted with the American judge involved, you consulted with friends and families, and you consulted with engineers and medical doctors in the community. Perhaps you think the duty to consult only applies to those people, or you think that those are the learned people that the Qur’an is talking about. But are you then claiming that the rules of exclusion and inclusion are left to your individual discretion—is it up to you to include or exclude whomever you want? Are you claiming that God is the One who wants jurists, dead and alive excluded, and engineers, doctors, and friends and family included? If so, explain the reason-based process that enabled you to reach this conclusion. If not, then claim that God revealed to you the details of the rules of inclusion and exclusion. I assume you have a methodology, but I cannot understand it.”


He gazed at me for a long time with simmering rancor, “So, you are basically saying that I should go to the books of some jurist and follow it.”


“No, you have not been listening. I am saying you consult the jurists of the past. You study their efforts and methodologies and solutions and then, if you feel that you can discharge your obligation with fairness and diligence, you decide what to follow and what to leave. But unless your belief in yourself is a matter of faith, and unless you are asking us to believe in you as a matter of faith, you must rationally persuade us that you are in fact giving effect to the Will of God. The best way to do that is to explain to us why the efforts of others before you are not on point or are wrong or are incomplete. But to simply ignore them strikes me as inefficient, arrogant, unkind, and rather ugly.”


“All I am getting from this,” he said, “is that you are in love with intellectualism, and intellectualism is prohibited and condemned in Islam. Brother, instead of this nonsense, follow the guidance of the Qur’an and Sunna—this is the straight path, not this twisting and twirling around that people like you are so good at.”


“As to your point about intellectualism,” I protested, "again, I don't understand. Are you saying God did not give you an intellect, or are you saying that God gave you an intellect but prohibited you from using it? Are you claiming intellectualism is prohibited as a matter of belief and faith because God revealed this to you? Did God communicate the prohibition to you directly, or did you wake up one day with this conviction firm in your heart? But how am I able to share this faith with you if I have no access to your spirit, and you are unable to give me an accounting that would transplant the same emotional conviction into my heart? Perhaps, you are saying that through a reason-based process, you arrived at the belief that intellectualism is prohibited. Perhaps you used your intellect to conclude that you may not use your intellect. But then, what is the legitimacy of the intellectual process that you used in the beginning to reach the reason-based conclusion that intellectualism is banned? This is like using the democratic process to ban the democratic process—is this legitimate, consistent, or honest? In any case, if you used a reason-based process to ban intellectualism, then surely you would be able to share with us your evidence, and if you can’t, then why should I be persuaded by your claim? As to the point about the straight path, I believe that the straight path exists and that it is good as a matter of faith. But I search for the straight path, and evaluate the evidence, and ponder whether I have fulfilled my obligations towards it as a matter of reason, not faith. As to my intentions and the nature of my behavior, all I am asking of you is to tell us whether we should accept your role and conclusions about Islamic law as a matter of reason or faith—is the acceptance of your authoritativeness an act of reason or an act of faith?”


“Okay, brother,” he proclaimed, “I patiently listened to you. But you persist in using kalam and philosophical nonsense. This is Uncle-Tom Americanism, and I pray that God will guide you some day. Al-salamu alaykum.”


With that, he turned and walked away. But life reserves surprises stranger than fiction. A few years later, I received the following e-mail from my Egyptian-looking friend:


Dear Brother Abul Fadl:

Al-salamu alaykum. I don’t know if you would remember me. We met in New York State many years ago. I gave a talk on resolving a conflict in a mosque and you slammed me. Much has happened since then. I went to law school, and I am now in my third year. After we talked, I did not give the same lecture again because I worried I would find someone like you in the audience. I also did some thinking. I felt bad because, using a faith-based argument (or is it a reason-based process), I felt I was sinning. I said I was applying the law of God because I believed that this is what God wants. But I started thinking that although I believe in the idea of the law of God as a matter of faith, and I accept its wisdom as a matter of faith, the law of God is found and evaluated through a reason-based process. Also, using a reason-based process, I felt I was being ungrateful, arrogant, and dismissive towards the Islamic tradition. The truth is that I tried to look in the old books of Islamic law and could not understand what they were saying. These jurists seemed to be speaking a private language. Is this what you meant when you said communities of meaning or symbolism? What are we supposed to do if we can’t understand our tradition?


One more question, if you will allow me—the feeling or desire to be rooted in a tradition, the desire to be a continuation rather than an aberration, to be an evolvement rather than an invention—is this longing for one’s roots and origins based on faith or reason?


Your brother in Islam…


I wrote him back the following sentence.


Dear Brother:


"In response to your question, like the longing for beauty and God, this would be the remembrance—the ‘dhikra li’l dhakirin’ (the remembrance for those who remember) (11:114). Wa al-salamu alaykum."