This essay is written for Muslim activists and scholars who are alarmed at today’s headlines and would like to engage the mass media in the hope of balancing its predominantly negative reporting with positive stories pertaining to Islam and Muslims. It is published by Tabah Foundation.
“Reasonable Accommodation” contends that religious practices will no longer be sheltered under the umbrella of multiculturalism. Further, it imposes a limitation on the participation of faith in the public space by stipulating a condition of “reasonable proof” on religion.
Tradition as recognized by mainstream Muslim thought is not synonymous with arachaic convention but understood as a stalwart against stagnation and a medium for moderation and continuity
When Muslims in the West describe themselves as traditional, it might seem as if they are adding yet another label to a dizzying array of social and religious typologies that already exist in their communities. The concern with defining tradition is not a vain attempt to reframe the Enlightenment debate of reason versus revelation, or tradition versus modernity. Rather, tradition, albeit the Islamic Tradition, is the gladiator’s arena where the most bitter conflict for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims is taking place.
The word tradition comes from the Latin traditio, meaning to hand down or to pass on knowledge or truths embodied in ritual practices, culture and beliefs from a past authority to subsequent generations within a religious community. The central purpose of a tradition is to act as a bridge between then and now, between a sacred moment in history and the profane present. Tradition is much more than just a word or a concept; it is a paradigm.
“Tradition” in academic circles has come to signify old fashioned customs, archaic cultural practices, ossified ideas handed down from the past and articulated to the letter by naïve, simple minded neo-Luddites. In popular discourse, to be traditional is to adamantly cling in the past. Those espousing traditional values are often lumped into the same category as the tree-huggers and angry protesters hurling insults at the towers of free-trade, liberalization and globalization and in the process braving the batons and pepper-spray of heavily armed policemen.
From this perspective, tradition is not only diametrically opposed to modernity; it represents a distinct historical period from which modernity saved the world by liberating itself from the shackles of tradition. Thus, anyone who consciously clings to the profound and perennial “Truths” or “Virtues” if you wish, embodied in all sacred traditions, is regarded as “backward looking,” anti-progress or worst, hopeless romantics.
In “Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and Islam,” Katherine Pratt Ewing eloquently explains and historically illustrates that what has come to be regarded as “traditional” was never static nor monolithic, but was instead varied and constantly evolving over time. The accusation of rigidity was hurled at tradition, she argues, by the architects of colonization in order to establish the colonizer’s hegemony over the colonized. Ultimately, in order for the colonizer to succeed in his colonization, the modern had to be cast as superior to the existing order. And thus the only reason why civilizations of old were destroyed, the argument goes, was because they failed to develop, progress, and to change. In other words, leave the old and dilapidated and get with the new program.