EXCERPT: "The Conference of the Books is a collection of studies in the ethos of the Islamic intellectual heritage and the contemporary Muslim reality. The studies presented in this book arose from my encounters, as a jurist and teacher, with Muslims in the United States and other parts of the world. The essays were written in response to actual recurring problems in the Muslim community that are directly relevant to the moral and ethical definition of Islam in the contemporary world. The range of topics addressed in this book is quite broad; among others, the topics include censorship, political oppression, terrorism, the veil and the treatment of women, marriage, parental rights, the role of Islamic law, the dynamics between law and morality, and the character of the Prophet Muhammad. The range of topics was dictated by the types of issues raised by the people I encountered, as well as by my own spiritual and moral development. Therefore, there is a noticeable evolvement in these essays, and I leave it to the reader to decide on the direction and merit of this evolution.
"The essays, however, do not represent a systematic argument towards a specific conclusion, nor is this book intended as a scholastic discourse on the contemporary Muslim reality. The essays do not assume an air of detachment or academic objectivity but, rather, reflect a variety of moods; they are passionate, jubilant, angry, and sometimes sarcastic, but they are invariably committed. Each essay was written in the context of an imagined conference of books that occurs every night. The books represented here are the books of my personal library, which contains books on a variety of subjects including Judaism, Christianity, law, philosophy, and literature. However, the books represented in this conference are mostly classical Islamic texts, and these texts engage their readers in reflections about the contemporary Muslim reality. Books, in general, preserve snapshots of the intellectual activity of their authors. Classical Islamic texts are the repository of the intellects of the past—the intellects that eventually transformed into books. And, it is my belief that, of all God’s wondrous creations, the intellect is the most wondrous of all, and it is also my belief that a book is the gift of God that preserves the intellect for generations to come. With this in mind, I engaged the intellects of the past in addressing the intellects of the present. A Muslim may read these essays as the testament of a Muslim jurist on the problems that confront us today. A non-Muslim may read these essays for their sociological significance and for their relevance to comparative insights on law and theology. Yet, as the Islamic message was addressed to human beings at large, I wrote these essays for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
"Each essay in this collection is designed to stand on its own merit, so the book may be read selectively or out of order. Nevertheless, there are unifying themes in this book, and these unifying themes are this work’s basic message. My primary focus is on the ethos of knowledge and beauty in modern Islam. Furthermore, this book seeks to create a nexus and bond between the Islamic intellectual heritage of the past and contemporary Muslim thought. Muslims today are uprooted from their intellectual tradition, and the result has been that Muslims have lost the ethos of knowledge, as well as their moral and intellectual grounding. The Islamic message started with a single book—the Qur’an—a book of remarkable moral vision and beauty. And, this single book has inspired an intellectual heritage of beauty and magnificence. It is my hope that the Conference of the Books will help rekindle the interest of Muslims in the book, and in their rich intellectual heritage..."
In this article, I set forth conceptions of happiness (sa‘ada) from the Islamic tradition, and against this background, I discuss the failure to attain happiness in the modern age. The cumulative Islamic tradition attests to the importance of happiness to faith in God, and to the importance of faith to happiness. While the themes of knowledge, enlightenment, balance, peace, and knowing the other are central to the Islamic theology of happiness, the failure of happiness is embodied by the idea of jahiliyya (a state of ignorance). I argue that a crucial issue in considering happiness and the failure of happiness is how one understands submission to God, and that submission to God is not simply obedience or servitude to God; rather, submission to God means aspiring to and seeking the goodness of God, and liberating one’s soul and being from a state of godlessness, or ignorance (jahiliyya), in order to attain a state of Godliness. To grow into and with God’s love is the epitome of fulfillment, goodness, and happiness. However, when submission becomes a formulaic relationship based on generalized stereotypes about history, societies, and people, or on a stereotyped understanding of one’s self dealing with a stereotypical understanding of an omnipotent but inaccessible God, unhappiness becomes the norm. Drawing on this analysis, I argue that in the modern age, the modalities of thought in puritanical movements have had a consistently demoralizing and dehumanizing effect that persistently undermines the possibilities for social and moral happiness, and thus, undermines the very purpose of the Islamic faith.
EXCERPT: "God is too infinite, too grand, and too limitless for any human being to presume to know or to possess the one and only way of unlocking the secrets of our moral universe. This is part of the objective of creation, and it is part of the very idea that, “We have made you nations and tribes.” (Q 49:13) It is in the very nature of things that each of us searches for a way, that each group of people that believes in an idea will search for a way, and what matters is that they become convinced or persuaded that their way is correct. As a Muslim, you can believe that your way is correct but you ultimately do not know what is in the realm of the ghayb (the unseen), and in the same way you do not know all the numerous ways in which the āyāt (the signs or manifestations of divinity; sing. āyat) manifest themselves. For instance, if you are sitting in a library in Germany, you do not know the way in which the āyāt of God manifest in Tanzania or in Iceland, and you do not know the way they manifest with whales swimming near the North Pole.
"In this way, your view and your knowledge are limited. But the āyāt are infinite and limitless, and as limitless as the Creator of the āyāt is, so are His sharā’i‘ (ways, paths; sing. shar‘). When God says that to each of you God made a way that will lead you to a good (shir‘atan wa minhājan; see, e.g., Q 5:48), as believers we must accept that God means what God says. It is not an endorsement of moral relativism, but rather it means that for each of you God has made a way that will lead you to a good. But as a Muslim, my obligation, my duty, is to search for a way within the realm of the āyāt that have been revealed to me as a Muslim and the āyāt that could be attainable to me as a Muslim. I am not and cannot be responsible for anything else, and so in the same way a Muslim cannot presume to know or to seek the way to God by ignoring the āyāt that are revealed to him or her, as a Muslim one must work within that realm. Of course, I am simplifying matters quite a bit because this is quite a vast subject..."