middle east, muslims, politics

Western Muslims and the Obsession of Liang Qi-Chao

Published by The Islamic Monthly on January 3rd, 2015

Ever since the imperial armies of the West, fuelled by technological and material advantages, encroached upon its eventual colonies a few centuries ago, intellectuals in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere have struggled with what may be the world’s greatest conundrum: how to derive goodness from Western modernity in a way that won’t destroy one’s own sense of historical and cultural self.

From the time when the Japanese navy routed the Russians in 1905 at the “Battle of Tsushima” (日本海海戦, nihonkai-kaisen), the prospect of Asian countries modernizing industrially to “catch up” to the West began to seriously crystallize. It was the first time in modern history that an Asian country had defeated an expansionist European power. The great Liang Qi-Chao, one of China’s foremost modern thinkers, along, with several other thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and even Gandhi, who was a lawyer in South Africa at the time, also recognized the importance of this victory. Sun Yat-Sen, the first President of the Republic of China, who was passing through the Middle East soon after Tsushima, had throngs of Arabs congratulating him (they mistook him for a Japanese person).

China’s global stature was faltering at the time, and Liang Qi-Chao recognized it even in 1895, when the Qing Dynasty of China decided to surrender after months of battle with Meiji Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War. Originally from a traditional Confucian family and on his way to the civil service, Liang became a travelling intellectual whose ideas articulated China’s sense of civilizational humiliation. His writings influenced a whole generation of Chinese thinkers and doers, including the infamously important Mao Ze-Dong.

Nonetheless, many around the world were excited after the Japanese victory against Russia that a “backward” continent could improve in ways that allowed them to compete in the modern world. [If you haven’t done so, pick up Pankaj Mishra’s ultra-important book From the Ruins of Empire, an intellectual history of how Asia reacted to imperial aggression.]

This issue has become, I would argue, the underlying obsession of much of the world, which has adopted a “social Darwinian-lite” view of the planet in an attempt to modernize themselves industrially (and rapidly). Thus the utterly shocking amount of pollution (among other things) coming out of China and India—the world’s two “rising” powers, or so we’re told. Yet modernity isn’t just a set of political and economic changes, but a comprehensive worldview that has come into opposition with many pre-modern traditions. The 21st century’s current maladies, some of which are disproportionately reported on in the post-9/11 era, are a contemporary manifestation of this much older tension. It’s as much an Asian question as it is, say, an African one, and as much a query involving religious belief as it does more secular outlooks.

That is, can people around the world prosper consistently and stably only if they accept the prescriptions of the West? Plainly, for reasons to do with simple capacity, not everyone in the world can have two cars, a garage, and a house in the suburbs. Such a model is unsustainable and physically self-destructive. This doesn’t mean that technological and civilizational progress can’t be appropriated proportionally to lift people out of poverty. What it points to, though, is the physical aspect of a modernizing trend that has globalized and metastasized to a point of negative return. Alternatives are needed, first and foremost as a matter of economic and environmental justice, but underlying this need is a less empirical reality concerning the human urge for spiritual nourishment—and urge that the modern world has largely ignored or dismissed.

Why believe in pre-modern concepts like a “soul” or “spirit” when shopping malls and Prozac can fill the void? Of course, if things were so simple, this column wouldn’t have to be written at all. The truth is that for all the talk about ISIS or Al Qaeda wanting to paint the world in their monochromal fundamentalisms, it’s the Western world’s financial and cultural influence that has forced its way throughout the world, imprinting its image upon us all. Older traditions that acknowledge and engage with the non-rational aspects of human nature have had to adjust, with some morphing into cells of paranoid violence that don’t amount to even a shadow of its former glory. Islam is at the center of this mess. A tradition once known for an ecumenical existence and an awe-inspiringly intellectual approach has now, through the world media, become distorted due to what’s perceived to be a crisis of authority.

Yet traditional Islam lives, and continues to inspire millions of people around the world. Here is where things get interesting for Muslims who grew up and reside in the Western world—especially when it comes to the US or Canada. Muslim communities in this area of the West have come closest to obtaining a model of sustaining religiously informed principles within a modern social context. It’s not perfect by a long shot, and there’s much to indicate that Muslim religio-cultural realities may become deemphasized in the next couple of generations as a result of further integration, but, truthfully, evidence for the opposite trend also exists.

There resides within these Western geographies an attempt to figure out a way to distance oneself from the corporate state and the excessive realities of modernity via a preservation of religious and intellectual tradition aimed first and foremost at improving modern man from within. I mean “improving” as in helping him or her approximate toward Transcendent Truth (God), which, in my opinion, when done accordingly, will manifest itself outwardly as civilizational stability and sustainability. If this endeavor continues to grow by filling in the gaps within our spiritually impoverished and existentially stale environments, then Muslims in the West would have provided a possible answer to questions that intellectuals like Liang Qichao and others went to their graves asking.

Therein lies the truly exciting potential of Western Muslims, who constitute a microcosm of the world, both conceptually and historically. We have a chance to find an improved response to the overt and covert neo-colonial tendencies of the West, imposed upon everyone else for better or worse—once the primary challenge for those clinging to their identities in the face of encroachment, the residue of which remains scattered throughout all our lives.

Photo: Backstage at a Chinese opera/CC

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/western-muslims-and-the-obsession-of-liang-qi-chao/]

Standard
muslims, politics

Hamza Yusuf and Contemporary Muslim Discourse

By all indications, Hamza Yusuf is the most influential and recognizable Muslim figure in North America. He routinely gives talks at conventions in the United States and Canada that draw out tens of thousands of Muslims. Having studied with well-known scholars in the Muslim world, Yusuf adds to his sophisticated “Western” sensibilities a serious Islamic academic background.

He also co-founded the first Muslim seminary in the United States (Zaytuna College). He was an independent advisor to George W. Bush and other political figures (to no avail it would seem). He routinely appears on media outlets throughout the world.

So why is it that the non-Muslim populations in North America have basically no idea who he is? Why is it that his voice, and the voices of Muslim scholars like him, is almost never heard in the contemporary Muslim discourse of North America?

It’s true that Yusuf has spoken at non-Muslim gatherings and has appeared on some mainstream media programs since 9/11. This is good. For those of us who observe the Muslim communities in North America, it is obvious that even Yusuf’s religious detractors recognize his position as a pillar of the community. Yet, his presence is lacking when journalists report on issues of particular interest to Muslims. The examples are too many to list.


Sh. Hamza Yusuf spoke at the 2011 RIS Convention and gave  what may perhaps be the most important lecture (in recent years) regarding the role of Muslims in the issue of economic justice. The talk was heard by thousands of Muslims, but the conference was ignored by most established media.

This absence is emblematic of the Western Muslim communities’ abhorrent public relations situation in general. The relationship between the mass media and the vast majority of Muslim populations in the West has been unproductive. Many Muslims blame the media for perpetuating lies and stereotypes and choose not to participate. This is understandable. However, this stark absence of Muslim voices leaves a vacuum to be filled. Unfortunately, those who fill such a space often misrepresent both Muslims and Islam itself.

This is primarily why Hamza Yusuf is not a household name when it comes to setting the framework of debate on Muslim-related issues. His spot has already been taken. Of course, this can be said about many leaders within the Muslim communities, all of whom deserve to be heard when there’s a discussion on “honor killings”, “halal meat”, so-called “Islamic terrorism”, or whatever else.

Those who do pontificate on such issues usually lack the scholarly erudition of a Yusuf (or of another qualified scholar). Sadly, many such commentators delegate to themselves the task of partitioning what kind of Muslim can or cannot be trusted. Often, these very commentators describe themselves as subscribing to the Muslim faith, but paint the bulk of “lived Islam” as incompatible with “Western values”. This isolates them as the lone, brave, Muslims who stand up to the onslaught of intolerance shown to them by their co-religionists.

This handful of commentators has better public relations than all the Western Muslim communities combined.

These problems can be solved by putting someone like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf at the center of public discussions on Islam and Muslims. It’s not so we can show off his erudition. Rather, placing serious scholars and Muslim intellectuals in the middle of agenda-setting media is the only way we can solve what is perhaps the most pressing sociopolitical problem facing Muslims in North America today. Given the prevalence of television and visual media, this means having knowledgeable Muslim commentators appear on outlets like CNN and CBC. This is certainly not being done in Canada, for example.

Muslim organizations have to actively pursue journalists and feed them stories. They have to regularly meet with the board members of major newspapers and other media outlets. A journalist’s success in terms of completing a story is highly dependent on whether his/her sources call or email back on time (this is known as “the waiting game”). As far as Muslim-related matters are concerned, respected scholars like Hamza Yusuf should consistently be one of those sources. The bulk of Muslims in the West should become those sources. Organizations like the Muslim Public Affairs Council (U.S.) as well as Civic Muslims (Canada), among other groups, have already started doing these things.

Being committed to these tasks will help foster understanding and dispels myths. It will familiarize the broader society with Muslims and their concerns. It will help facilitate justice and peace for Muslims and non-Muslims this continent.

Standard