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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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.