Nazim Baksh (May 17. 2020)
A seismic drift is taking place among Muslims in the West. It began in earnest this Ramadan, but it is abundantly clear that we are heading in the direction of a new norm.
In these last days of Ramadan, it’s as good a time as any to evaluate whether the drift and the resulting new norm has the potential to subvert the spatial and spiritual geography of Muslim communities in Canada, the United States and Western Europe.
The overarching reason that has precipitated this drift is what the Cuomo brothers – Governor of New York Andrew and CNN host Chris – have labelled “the beast”:a novel coronavirus that is proving to be adept at settling old scores.
The Social Significance of the Communal Iftar Feast
Our Ramadan experience hovers between a private struggle to obey a divine command and a natural urge to celebrate its opening at sunset with a feast.
If suhur followed by long hours of thirst and hunger are intensely private time, the iftar meal links our sacrifices with the sheer joy of commensality.
Which fasting person could refuse an invitation to a sumptuous communal potluck iftar around friends, relatives and complete strangers?
The thought of partaking in a cornucopia of dishes from diverse cultures after a long day of hunger quickens the dying hours of the day.
While these iftars have become a victim of the pandemic, eating at home has made me realize just how little food I need to be satisfied.
And yet I miss these iftars, not so much because of what was usually on the menu, but because our faith and the effort we make to hold on to it, is elevated in the act of commensality.
Commensality is a sunnah of God’s Messenger. Food is always better when shared with others. One would be hard-pressed to find a single instance in the noble sira of the Prophet of God, peace and blessings of God be upon him, where he ate alone.
The Messenger of God taught us that God’s blessings (barakah) causes food to “grow”, making a meagre amount enough to satiate.
If Arundhati Roy’s observation is true, that pandemics serve as a portal from one world to another, my small prayer is that our iftar feasts will become less about what’s on the menu and more about the immense grace of commensality.
I pray that we will find a creative way to avoid generating a mountain of plastic spoons and forks, styrofoam cups, plates and leftover spicy biryani.
Fasting 16 plus hours does not entitle us to create as much waste as our stomachs desire.
I am sure our municipal dump site, hidden from plain sight even as the stench of its odor stifles the air for birds and bees, is breathing a sigh of relief this Ramadan.
Feasting on Technology
The trend this Ramadan of virtual iftars and digital night vigil (tarawih) prayers, Friday (jumu’ah) prayers, and soon Eid sermons (khutbah), indicate a significant drift to a new norm that will no doubt impact the contours of our communities.
Mind you, VR Hajj is already a thing.
Over the last ten years both Muslim scholars and social justice activists have urged Muslims to observe “a fast from technology” in Ramadan.
This year though, by their own actions, they’ve been advocating for a feast on technology with online offerings of what appear to be a disjuncted smorgasbord of traditional lectures (durus), discussions, interviews and political opinions.
Every imam, maulana, moulvi and professor with something to offer, any subject will do fine, can be found online this Ramadan. The virtual mosque is open for business 24/7.
You don’t have to wait anxiously for the next ISNA, ICNA or RIS conference to listen to your favorite “exotified scholar” as Yasir Qadhi once described them, himself included in that category.
Qadhi’s online performances have a flair for the dramatic. Theatre defines the moment especially when he is interviewing his friend and Indian preacher in “self-imposed exile,” Zakir Naik.
When Naik begins to brag about how great Peace TV once was, Qadhi failed to remind his guest to whisper a word of gratitude for the millions in petro-dollars that helped turn it into a colossal and wasteful mega-media company it once was.
With return on investment doing poorly in North America for Qadhi and Omar Suleiman, they’ve turned to building bridges with wealthy donors in Malaysia, the same folks sheltering Naik, but hardly anyone wants to talk about that.
To be fair a lot of what is being offered online this Ramadan, Qadhi’s and Suleiman’s contributions included, and especially from many frontline faith workers who serve as imams at mosques with actual walls, is beneficial, even though a great deal of it competes in a shallow pool of mediocrity.
However, mediocrity is not a sin. If it was, more of us might have stopped showing up for Friday jumu’ah prayers a long time ago.
What’s disturbing is how easily Muslims have gravitated to scholars that operate with greater internet bandwidth and high-end recording equipment, abandoning their local and now financially struggling communities in favour of online content consumption.
When “the beast” is made to retreat, will this techno-obsessed generation – Gen Z – be willing to trade up the allure of their virtual sheikhs and return to communities of real people?
Many mosque administrators worry that our masajid, centres and musallahs will sit empty in a post-pandemic world.
Almost half of all Muslims in Canada are below the age of 30 and approximately 70 per cent of them have a post-secondary education. It is not a stretch to see how attractive and convenient virtual online spaces can appear to this crowd especially when the alternative is a sonorous Friday khutbah and the grit and grime of managing the financial affairs of local mosques.
Real vs Imagined Communities
Real communities have an important characteristic that imagined communities don’t possess – boundaries.
Boundaries are defined by rituals that sometimes serve as symbols.
They shape the identity of communities, defining who is in and who is not. More importantly, boundaries amplify a consciousness of community, i.e. how members of the ummah of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, are expected to behave.
By allowing ourselves to be seduced by the simulacra of a community that exists virtually, we are trodding a path that could eventually bring about the erasure of religious boundaries and subvert our strongest asset – real communities.
In a 2005 study titled “Western Perceptions of Islam and Muslims: A Study of Public Opinion and the Role of the Media in the United States and Western Europe,” funded by Kuwait’s Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs and conducted by the Communique Partners in California, the fact that Muslims have thriving communities was seen as an advantage that could help mitigate against the rising tide of anti-Muslim resentment.
If ritual boundaries spell out commonalities, they also demarcate differences. It is for this reason why non-Muslims aren’t normally allowed into Mecca and Madina.
Boundaries are also why in ancient cities like Fez in Morocco, the authorities don’t allow non-Muslims to enter mosques such as the Qarawiyyin or Dar al-Andalus. There is nothing stopping them from gawking at the doorways, selfie cameras at the ready.
It has nothing to do with purity or impurity, but rather, with acceptable behaviour expected within and outside the boundaries of our community.
Boundaries go hand in glove with a defined system of symbols. The dome and minaret are symbols of submission (sajdah) and ascendancy (mi’raj). The mihrab and qibla are symbols of direction and purpose.
The pulpit (minbar) is a symbol to remind the one who stands on it that he is addressing the community of the final prophet to all of mankind.
The call to prayer (adhan) too is a symbol that tells us it’s time to take a break from the mundane and enter the realm of gratitude.
How does ritual boundary translate in the realm of virtual space? It doesn’t. There are no useful metrics to employ even though some overzealous scholars are determined to give it a go.
At the onset of Ramadan, a local Toronto scholar labelled his elders in India who once debated the permissibility of using loudspeakers to amplify the voice of the imam during salah, as “backward” for refusing to embrace technology. He did this to advance a porous argument that virtual tarawih and jumu’ah salah, while modern, were nevertheless acceptable modalities of prayers.
The debate over the permissibility of deploying loudspeakers during salah had to do with the issue of ritual boundary. If salah – and there is no greater symbol for the Muslim community – begins with the imam’s standing in the mihrab, where exactly does the scope of his imamate end?
To answer the question one would have to dig a bit deeper than the basic rules of istinja to appreciate the level of social and cultural awareness of our fuqaha and the methodology they employed to prevent the dilution and dissipation of the Islamic tradition, i.e. the Prophet’s sunnah.
The perils of migrating to an online virtual space and becoming stuck there, could inadvertently result in the shattering of the moral, spiritual, spatial and in some cases quasi-legal, architecture of boundaries that have defined our ummah, our jama’ah, our millah, for centuries.
To those most adept at navigating the modern virtual landscape, such as the free floating post-modern left-leaning, mostly liberal and vaguely Marxist activist Muslim “leaders,” all religious boundaries are social constructs and therefore, negotiable, even if they have to be sacrificed at the altar of inclusivity.
‘God is Merciful and the Prophet was sent as a Mercy – what else do we need to know?’ has become the new mantra from a cabal of preachers and activists who trip awkwardly over each other for a slightly more comfortable seat at today’s social justice banquet where just about every sort of perverted behaviour elicits their sympathy.
That being said, with the alarming rise of Islamophobia, I don’t blame them.
Blame it on “The Beast”
Is “the beast” the reason why so many Muslims are willing to toss out the ritual signposts that defined the boundaries of our ummah for 1400 years? Don’t we need signposts to find our way home? We should be planting them more firmly during this pandemic, not ripping them out.
“The beast comes at night,” said the coronavirus stricken Chris Cuomo on an episode of the CNN’s Prime Time show he hosts. “The beast is still alive. We did not kill the beast. The beast is under control, but the beast can rise up again,” says his brother Andrew, Governor of New York.
The Cuomo brothers were invoking a very Christian narrative of “the beast,” the Antichrist who bears the mark of 666, to frame the rampage of the novel coronavirus.
Muslims also have a notion of “the beast,” it is a dabbah, from the root da-ba-ba which means to move slowly, to spread, to create. It precedes the Antichrist (al-Dajjal) and is a distinct entity.
The Quran says that in the last days “God will bring forth a dabbah from nature (al-ard) and it will speak to mankind regarding Our signs which they have discarded” (27:82).
Ibn Majah relates on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Prophet said, “The beast will emerge from nature and will have the staff of Moses and the ring of Prophet Solomon.”
In his account of apocalyptic events, Imam al-Tabari tells us that the beast will speak Arabic and emerge from Safa in Mecca and its body will be as hairy as the hirsute that crowns its head.
“Not content to make men ashamed of their impiety and hypocrisy,” Imam al-Tabari says, “the beast will itself bear the sign of universal death and the imam of the Ka’ba will recognize it.”
Reports have it that “the beast” is made up of different animal parts – pig, elephant, stag, lion, cat, camel, etc. – with its feet on the ground and its head in the clouds, i.e. airborne. I couldn’t get the wet wildlife market in Wuhan from where this particular coronavirus most likely emerged out of my mind after reading this.
The sahaba and intrepid traveller, the legendary Tamim al-Dari, is believed to have encountered the beast – al-Jassasa – on a faraway remote island.
It is not clear from the hadith literature who al-Jassasa (“The Spy”) is spying for. However, the fact that he exposed the location of the one-eyed and shackled al-Dajjal to Tamim, suggests that he is not in the service of al-Dajjal, but is an entity that can breach your security long before anyone realizes it.
After Tamim miraculously returned to Madina years later, and his wife had remarried and failed to recognize him, he informed the Prophet about what he experienced. According to a hadith in Sahih Muslim, the Prophet affirmed the veracity of his experience to an assembly of Muslims in his mosque.
If the marvelous narrative of Tamim’s encounter with al-Jassasa and al-Dajjal bears any resemblance to the novel coronavirus, perhaps we could model our response to it much like the eschatological approach the Prophet of God took with his community – make amends before the terror of the ‘chained creature’ is unleashed.