Theology-in-Progress [2] A Muslim Theology of Prostration

The tentative title of my book-in-progress is “A Muslim Theology of Prostration.” I realize that the title may be perplexing for many at first blush. As a consequence I wrote the introduction to the book to address those questions and concerns. But I also believe that it serves as a suitable explanation of what it is I am doing here with the Theology-in-Progress blog series. What follows is an excerpt from the introduction taken from its beginning.

Introduction

A man of little understanding may perhaps say: “There is already a sufficient abundance of books, there is no benefit in compiling new ones in this age.” Such a man would be correct insofar as books are indeed abundant and should be sufficient; but not in saying that no benefit is to be gained from compiling further books now. People’s hearts are naturally attracted to everything new, and God gives them at each time knowledge clothed in the form best suited to the age.[1]

-Imam ʿAbd Allāh Ibn ʿAlawī al-Ḥaddād, The Book of Assistance

What is a Muslim theology of “prostration?” More than that, what is “Muslim” theology? And perhaps most pointedly of all, why “theology” at all?

This book, in its own way, works to answer these questions. Although the full breadth of this text is intended to answer these questions, something should be said now by way of introduction. And to do this, it would be best to address these three questions in reverse.

Why “theology” at all? With the many and overwhelming concerns of everyday life and the world pressing upon us, why would anyone, even a person of faith, turn to “theology” for respite, relief, or resolution? What does theology – this seemingly outmoded and overly complicated way of thinking – have to offer to a world on quickly shifting ground? If our hearts and minds cannot keep pace with the blur of the 24-hour news cycle, what can the plodding, methodical machine of theology hope to accomplish? Some would even say that theology is too antiquated and woefully ill-equipped to adequately respond to the sophisticated challenges that assail us today, whether it concerns science or sexuality, existential crises or systemic injustices, or perennial problems in new guises like sickness, suffering, and death. Why indeed would anyone turn to theology?

Though it may seem to fly in the face of all practical considerations, this book argues the contrary. It argues that “theology” is of incredible – if not the utmost – importance for us in the here and now. But what this book means by “theology” differs from commonplace expectations. As many often think of it within an Islamic context, theology is a scholastic exercise. Theology is nothing more than a dry, overly rationalistic field of learning that is more concerned with proofs, polemics, and apologetics than with fostering faith in even the darkest of places. But the reality is that there are times – incredibly many times – when what we need most is to have our faith fostered – not proven, argued, or meticulously explained. To foster faith is more fundamental. Theology, if it is truly to be theology, must see to this most basic of human needs or so the argument of this book will go. In light of this expectation, this book casts a wide net when speaking of theology. And why should it not? Without a doubt, other scholars have done likewise.[2] Theology is more than merely an intellectual enterprise. It is taken here to encompass a great many things. It encompasses matters of belief and doctrine. It encompasses ethics and spirituality (as impoverished a word as “spirituality” is).[3] It encompasses the practice of everyday life and life itself. So yes, theology is important. It is critically important. When this vast array that is theology is carefully attuned and marshaled it can serve as a foundation and bulwark for those seeking a life of faith or a more vibrant one. Though how all of this is so may not be immediately apparent. This book, from beginning to end, endeavors to make such a case and to make it clear.

But for whom is all of this important? This brings us to our second query about “Muslim” theology.

While this is a work abstractly intended for people of faith, it cannot be denied that a more concrete community is imagined. The ideas, narratives, and significations invoked throughout this book are unmistakably “Islamic” in character. So yes, this is a work of “Muslim” theology in that it was written for a particular community of faith. More precisely, this work was written for the ahl al-qibla, literally “the people of the direction of prayer.” The words of this book are for them, that community which is bound together by that most basic of acknowledgements: The ritual prayer, the ṣalāt, when observed, is offered in the direction of the Kaʿba, the house of God in Mecca, wherever one may be. We shall turn you to a direction of prayer (qibla) that is dear to you. So turn your face toward the sacred place of prostration (al-masjid al-ḥarām) (Q. 2:144). Although the Muslim community may differ over many things great and small with respect to faith, it is bound in common by its recognition that our prayers ought to be oriented towards the house of God in Mecca. This is not to imply that we all fastidiously pray or that we pray in the same way. God knows that our differences and difficulties are many. Whether we prayer regularly, irregularly, or not at all (and let us recognize with honesty that prayer is a perennial struggle), we, the ahl al-qibla, agree that our prayers are oriented towards that divinely established qibla. Thus, to avoid more particularistic and potentially divisive designations for our community, this book is written simply for the ahl al-qibla, a community in search of God through prayer.

Yet as generous as this intended audience is, particularisms cannot be entirely avoided. I recognize that during the course of this work that I cite certain sources and not others and that I invoke some names and not others. These choices say much about to whom this work is directed and the memories and histories in which this Muslim theology is rooted. Furthermore, I recognize that works of theology very often bear the traces of the autobiographical. This may not always be the case, but it is true of this book. And as its author I can attest that elements of the autobiographical mark this work. Just as the works of past scholars reveal traces of the lives of their authors, this work most assuredly bears the markings of my own. Indeed the theology that this book presents is born out of my own experiences: my experience as a person of color born and raised in a country so indelibly colored by race, my experience as a child of immigrants who has only ever called this land of colonization his home, my experience as a beneficiary of a largely secular (but not entirely) Western education, my experience as a Asian-American man, husband, and father from a blue-collar suburban family living in a time when identifiers such as these are important to foreground, and my experience as a person of faith who came to faith out of reverence, love, and awe amidst an English-speaking Muslim community. And perhaps most important of all, this book emerges from my experience as a person of faith for whom faith is a perpetual, lifelong struggle. That is to say, the words and ideas expressed herein reflect where I have been and where I hope to go. So while I may broadly address the imagined ahl al-qibla, I also acknowledge that this work of theology emerges from a particular horizon of life that some, but not all, may share or be able to appreciate. Yet in the end horizons of understanding are forged for whom God wills. This is merely my address to you.

With those words said, what then is a Muslim theology of prostration?

In order to answering this last query, something must be said about what I hope to accomplish during the course of this book. In that regard, this work of theology seeks to do many things, just as it encompasses many things. First, it argues that we must see theology in a new light. Our circumstances have changed and we have changed. As Imam al-Ḥaddād expresses above, every age has its own needs and challenges. Our understanding of theology, then, should adapt accordingly. Second, this work brings into relief those concepts that I consider key for developing a Muslim theology for today: tradition, revelation, and the religious imagination. I believe that we cannot effectively take up the task of theology without also taking into consideration these ideas that are intimately connected to its formulation. Third, this work presents the beginnings of a theology (I might even venture a systematic theology) directed at responding to the mounting challenges of our times.

This beginning, however, does not land us where some might expect. The trajectory of this work does not alight us upon some lofty height of self-realization or divine disclosure. My aims are not so ambitious or far-reaching. Other avenues are better suited for such ends, the foremost of which remain the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. Rather, the arc of this book is patterned after the arc of ṣalāt, the obligatory ritual prayer, which has attained a special, iconic place across Muslim consciousness as well as within popular perceptions of the faith. And what posture is more emblematic of prayer and Islam itself than sajda, the prostration of head to earth. Where we are headed and where we will end with this book is not high above, but down below in that lowest of positions of the prayer, prostration. While profound questions will be asked about God and revelation and about ourselves and tradition, my ultimate aim is to bring us to a deep and meaningful understanding of the simple act of sajda. It seems an easy thing to do, to bow down our heads, but life has shown us time and again that that seemingly simple act can be incredibly difficult to do given the world in which we live. Do we not live in a world where materialism and worldly success are so much easier for us to imagine and strive for than an End Time and a Hereafter that never seem to arrive? Do we not live in a world where what we witness with our eyes and our rational minds is more compelling than faith in the Unseen? It should be no surprise then that an act as simple as prayer and a posture as humble as sajda has become a tribulation for us, the people of the qibla. This is a Muslim theology of prostration because sometimes it is better to address that which afflicts us on low so that we might fathom what hangs precipitously over our heads.

Moreover, this is a theology that asks what does it mean to perform the sajda in this present moment of ours. What does it mean to prostrate to God now given the state of the world in which we presently struggle and live?

It should be clear at this point with all that has been said so far that this book has much work to do and indeed the case to be made will require careful deliberation and the industry of our imaginations. To facilitate the way forward, I have divided the book into six chapters…

 

[1] Imam ‘Abdallah Ibn’Alawi Al-Haddad, The Book of Assistance, trans. Mostafa al-Badawi (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2003), 5.

[2] Tim Winter, in his edited volume on classical Islamic theology, states that his “book does not identify ‘theology’ as conterminous with this kalām tradition” and that “it acknowledges many issues which most readers will recognise as theological were treated by Muslim civilisation in a wide range of disciplines.” In the same volume, Oliver Leaman writes, “…there often exists no clear distinction between Islamic theology, in the sense of kalām, and the other Islamic and not so Islamic sciences, such as grammar, jurisprudence (fiqh), philosophy (falsafa/ḥikma), Sufism, and the even more specific activities of learning how to operate with the Traditions of the Prophet, and how to assess and rank the chains of narrators which differentiate their levels of reliability.  Islamic theologians did not usually strictly separate what they did from all these other activities, and so it is not easy to provide a neat account of precisely what is ‘theological’ and what is not.” Later, William Chittick describes Islamic theology as “God-talk in all its forms” and explains that it “is concerned with clarifying the reality of the Object of Worship, the Absolute Ḥaqq, so that people can relate to it in the right and appropriate manner.” Tim Winter, “Introduction” in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, edited by Tim Winter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 2; Oliver Leaman (Part I) & Sajjad Rizvi (Part II), “The Developed Kalām Tradition” in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, p.77; William Chittick, “Worship” in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, p. 221.

[3] Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005); Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford, 2012), pp. 97-102; Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality: A Brief History, Second Edition (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 3-6.

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