Theology-in-Progress [1] Beginnings

For the past two years I have been working on an book project that in some respects is a significant departure from my previous scholarship. At the same time, it is a natural extension of the work that I have been long doing. The project in question is a work of constructive Muslim theology. I began to seriously consider writing a work of theology — and not simply a study of theology — two years ago after a number of fruitful conversations with friends, family, and colleagues. But it was during Ramadan of 2012 that I resolved to move forward and begin writing.

With the arrival of Ramadan this year, I have completed the introduction and first four chapters of the book of a planned total of six. While I have been writing, I have had the opportunity to present my theology-in-progress at a number of venues. At the Contemplating the Qur’an (Tadabbur al-Qur’an) Conference at Howard Divinity School I presented “The Dialectic of Revelation: The Qur’an and Systematic Theology” and then at the Fifth Annual Meeting for the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics (SSME) I presented “Tradition and the Religious Imagination in Muslim Theology.” This might give you some idea of what this book is about. But as I work to complete the book, I plan to share —insha’Allah — aspects and excerpts here on Islamicana in a series entitled “Theology-in-Progress” because all theology, in truth, is a human work-in-progress.

As a way of beginning, here is an edited excerpt of a section entitled “Terms of the Conversation” from Chapter One:

Terms of the Conversation

I am approaching the work of Muslim theology by embracing the task fully within our “logosphere” of English. The choice of English is intentional. This book is written for those of us who live and struggle upon that linguistic horizon. But a logosphere is more than merely language. We are not just bound by a common spoken tongue. We are also bound by a common experience and a common faith. As stated by Mohammed Arkoun, “A logosphere is the linguistic mental space shared by those who use the same language with which to articulate their thoughts, their representations, their collective memory, and their knowledge according to the fundamental principles claimed by a unifying weltanschaung” (Arkoun, The Unthought, 12). Here is our common ground. We live within a logosphere of English accented and accentuated by the language of the Qur’an, the very speech of God. So it should be understood that the theological framework that I am presenting depends upon appreciating the conceptual genealogies of words as they are used across English-speaking Muslim horizons. English is not just a language. It is our language.

And why should this not be the case? Our community has come of age in the English logosphere. Perhaps no life better reflects this development for us than the life of Malcolm X. Near the end of his life (though he did not know it then, he could only suspect) Malcolm X described to Alex Haley part of the manner of his education in English:

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks. I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting. I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. (Malcolm X, Autobiography, 175)

From “aardvark” to the end, Malcolm came to patiently learn and live the English language word-by-word. The end result was a powerful mastery of the language, a distinction to which Malcolm’s later life amply attests and a distinction honored by Ossie Davis in his eulogy for Malcolm: “I say the word again, as he would want me to: Afro-American – Afro-American Malcolm, who was a master, was most meticulous in his use of words. Nobody knew better than he the power words have over minds of men.” This mastery of the word carried him from prison to the Nation of Islam to the holy vicinity of the Kaʿba itself. In both spoken and written form, Malcolm harnessed the English language in all its starkness and complexity that his words elevated us in powerful and unimagined ways. To be sure, his words, spoken with clarity and fierceness, elevate us still. Though uttered many decades ago, the words of Malcolm X – carefully cultivated from the copied pages of the English dictionary – have unquestionably made an indelible impression on our community. Malcolm has played no small part in our linguistic coming of age.

Thus, when speaking of theology it is not necessary for us to seek out a classical equivalent, Arabic or otherwise. We live our life of faith in this English logosphere. Is not our horizon of meaning covalent with Malcolm’s? Should it not be? Moreover, not all concepts pertinent to our discourse are easily or even possibly translatable. Consider the shifting amorphousness surrounding our ideas and usage of “theology” and “tradition.” They are cut from the same cloth. With respect to theology, I am not using the word as a substitute or translation for an Arabic term like ʿaqīda (“creed”), ʿilm al-kalām (“doctrinal theology”) or uṣūl al-dīn (“foundational principles of the religion”), though these important disciplines invariably figure into the conversation. What I mean by theology is greater than all these. The sense of theology that we are dealing with here and what I describe as “how we respond to God” has a genealogy and significance that is rooted to our English-speaking context. Furthermore, it has developed a meaning, or rather a range of meanings, that is specific to the concerns and understandings of our Muslim community. So taking into account these baseline considerations, when I say “theology” I mean theology. I mean that which literally is “discourse on God” and more generally refers to the human attempt to apprehend, make sense of, and find fulfillment in the transcendent reality of God. Theology asks us how do we talk about God? And more importantly, how do we talk to Him?

Mohammed Arkoun. 2002. The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought. London: Saqi Books.

Malcolm X & Alex Haley. 1964. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Books. Thirty-fourth Printing, April 1993.

 

 

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