Friday, May 16, 2008
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and My Year Inside Radical Islam - Part 5
On pages 177-178 of My Year Inside Radical Islam, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writes:
“… my spiritual needs are irrelevant if Allah exists. If Allah exists, none of our spiritual needs will be fulfilled if our relationship with Him is based on falsehood. If Allah exists, we don't forge a relationship with Him. Instead, He dictates a relationship with us. Salafism led me to comprehend this in a way that I never did before. The scientific methodology espoused by Bilal Philips and others like him was an effort to ensure that our understanding and actions accord with Allah's will.
“Salafis carefully interpret the Qu'ran and Sunna because they believe that the best way of interpreting Allah's will is going back to the earlier understanding of Islam. The earliest generation of Muslims is a pious example because if Muhammad were truly a prophet, those who were closest to him and experienced life under his rule would best understand the principles on which an ideal society should be built.”
While one might agree that a person's spiritual needs might not be fulfilled if the individual's relationship with Divinity is based on falsehood rather than truth, this still leaves the problem of determining what is truth and what is falsehood. According to the quoted passage, those who are under the influence of the Salafi approach to things believe they are capable of differentiating truth and falsehood, but is this necessarily the case?
The Salafis claim to have a methodology which will bring one back to the earliest understanding of Islam … the one which existed at the time of the Prophet and his Companions. The Salafis contend that the ones who were closest to the Prophet had the best understanding of the principles on which an ideal society should be built, and, therefore if one can understand what they understood, then, one will have what one needs to be able to build an ideal society.
Leaving aside the issue of whether, or not, the point of Divine guidance actually is to help people establish an ideal society, there are a few other potential problems with the Salafi perspective as outlined in the earlier quote. First of all, why should one be expected to permit one's relationship with God to be filtered through someone's understanding (for example, that of the Salafis) of, in turn, someone else's understanding (for example, that of the Companions of the Prophet) of God's guidance?
Furthermore, what guarantee does one have that the manner in which Salafis go about interpreting the earliest sources is correct or leads to valid conclusions? Why should I suppose that the Salafis have correctly understood the intentions, meanings, and purposes of such earliest sources?
When someone says something, all one has to go on are the words. One does not have direct access to what is going on in the mind, heart, and soul of the person who utters such words, but, rather, one must try, as best one can, to try to deduce the condition of a person's mind, heart, and soul based on analyzing the words.
One may, or may not, also have a concrete context out of which words are spoken to assist one, somewhat, with deciphering what may have been meant by certain words in such a context. However, here again, one must not only deal with the problem of trying to determine whether, or not, one actually understands such a context in all of its historical, social, personal, and spiritual complexities, but as well, one still must deal with the problem of whether, or not, one accurately understands that context as the person making the statement understood such a context.
The truth of the matter is that most of us have difficulty trying to figure out what people mean when they speak in contexts going on today. Consequently, I have my doubts about how accurately someone will be able to render what was going on inside of the minds, hearts, and souls of people more than 1400 years ago.
Even if one were to agree with the idea that some of the people who lived in the time of the Prophet may have had the best and most intimate insight concerning the nature of Divine Revelation or the behaviour of the Prophet, nevertheless, one must jump a huge historical and experiential chasm to be able to go on to claim with any degree of validity that one understands things in precisely the way that people understood things some 1400 years ago. What is more, there is no way in which one can prove such claims.
The Salafi methodology and mode of approaching the problem of how does one differentiate truth from falsehood is unnecessarily circuitous, indirect, and complicated. God's guidance was meant to be engaged by individuals who depend on God's help to arrive at a correct understanding of revelation rather than seeking to have one's understanding of Divine guidance filtered through someone else's understanding of someone else's understanding.
Each individual has her or his own responsibility to struggle with the task and challenge of working toward ascertaining the nature and meaning of Divine guidance for himself or herself. My spiritual duty is to seek and to surrender to God's truth. My duty is not to seek and submit to someone else's version of that truth.
Unfortunately, Shari'ah has been made a public issue when, in fact, it is a private matter. Shari'ah has been subordinated to a system of religious leadership and power struggles which demand obedience to the leadership and its perspective. Guidance is not a demand for obedience but is an attempt to draw one's attention to a path which leads toward, through, and by means of truth, justice, identity and purpose
Spirituality has been legalized in the sense that the former has been reduced to being a function of legal dogmas and rules which are an oppressor of spirituality not the means of realizing and unleashing spirituality. Spirituality has been made a matter of obedience when, in truth, spirituality lies entirely at the opposite end of the spectrum from matters of obedience.
Spirituality is about honoring – through realizing and fulfilling – the amana or trust which has been bequeathed to us. Spirituality is not about ceding moral or intellectual authority to others. Spirituality is about what it means to be a servant of God who creatively serves the responsibilities of being God's Khalifa on earth and, and as such, all of life becomes an expression of worship.
It is not possible to realize the amana or trust through obedience to authority in and of itself. Mere obedience to authority removes the active and dynamic element of personal responsibility, commitment, and on-going intellectual and moral choice which is necessary for the struggle toward spirituality.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said that: “the one who knows one's soul, knows one's Lord”. One can't come to know one's soul by abdicating one's spiritual responsibilities and ceding them to someone else's understanding of things – even if the latter understanding is correct.
The Qur'an gives expression to wisdom. Nonetheless, as the Prophet is reported to have indicated: “What good is the Qur'an without understanding?”, and, consequently, the understanding one must have is one's own understanding and not mere obedience to someone else's understanding.
All too often, obedience qua obedience entails a desire on the part of an individual to get out from beneath the felt existential burden of having to constantly and rigorously search for truth and justice. As a result, all too many people shy away from embracing the struggle which the Qur'an indicated that God intended life to be for human beings.
“And surely We shall test you with some fear and hunger and loss of wealth and lives and crops.” (Qur'an, 2:155)
The struggle of life requires us to constantly seek that which is more true, just, and essential and to leave behind that which is less true, less just and less essential. The intention with which one pursues spirituality should not be to submit to and satisfy someone else's theological likes and dislikes but, instead, to seek the truth concerning oneself and one's relationship with Being and to do justice in accordance with that truth and in accordance with one's capacity for both truth and justice.
One must stand alone before God and affirm [through understanding and action] one's relationship with God – 'Am I not your Lord?' As the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said: “Every one of you is a guardian, and every one of you shall be questioned about that which you are guarding.”
The aforementioned affirmation is not out of obedience qua obedience but is, instead, an expression of one's recognition of the way things are with respect to the Divine order of creation and Allah's purpose for creation.
First comes understanding … however limited this may be. Obedience without understanding is an empty form, and when the mind, heart, and soul have a proper insight into the nature of creation, then, intentions arise, God willing, which conform with the nature of truth and justice. This conformity between, on the one hand, intention, and, on the other hand, truth and justice is not obedience per se but, rather, the conformity constitutes action rooted in one's knowledge concerning the nature of one's being and its relation to Divinity.
Mr. Gartenstein-Ross lends credence to what is said above when his book described how he abdicated his own moral and intellectual authority and proceeded to cede them to the Salafi perspective. On page 154, he says:
“I didn't want to be racked by doubts and uncertainty. … I wanted to live a life of conviction – like Abdul-Qaadir, like al-Husein [both imbued with the Salafi perspective]. I wanted a clear guide for telling right from wrong.”
In exchange for what Mr. Gartenstein-Ross was led to believe would be a mental clarity free from doubts and uncertainty, all the author had to do was cede his intellectual, moral, and spiritual authority to the Salafi leaders. They would tell him what was true and what was false. He needn't worry about anything except submitting to what he was told.
As the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam wrote just prior to the above quotation:
“Now, when I heard a new fatwa or an unfamiliar point of Islamic law … I no longer asked if it was moral. Rather, I asked whether this was a proper interpretation of the Qur'an and Sunna.” (page 154)
The meaning of what constituted a “proper interpretation of the Qur'an and Sunna” would be provided by the Salafi leaders in their literature, audio recordings, DVDs, lectures, sermons, and everyday interactions.
If one bowed down to Salafi theology, then all doubts and uncertainty would disappear amidst the absolutist -- albeit rather arrogant, self-satisfied and unproven –pronouncements of the Salafi leadership. One didn't have to struggle with anything except the demand to submit to the theology being propagated by the Salafi brotherhood.
Mr. Gartenstein-Ross's original idea of seeking God and seeking to please God became lost amidst the theological musings of the Salafis. The author, by his own admission, became more preoccupied with not wanting “to be regarded as a heretic by my brothers and sisters in faith,”(page 154) and in the process he ceded his intellectual, moral, and spiritual authority to people who did not have his best spiritual interests at heart.
Later, in reference to himself, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross writes:
“When you became Muslim, you thought that the moderate interpretation was clearly right. You thought that extremists were either ignorant or manipulating the faith for their own gain. Your time at al-Haramain (the Ashland Muslim group) has made you question this. As your cherished vision of Islam collapsed, you're left feeling depressed, helpless, and confused.”
The truth of the matter is that Mr. Gartenstein-Ross' cherished vision of Islam collapsed because he permitted spiritual vampires to come into his life and suck that vision from him. Of course, just as is the case in the movies, when Mr. Gartenstein-Ross decided to go to work at al-Haramain, he didn't realize he would be associating with such spiritual vampires, but, unfortunately, we don't always exercise due diligence under such circumstances and, as a result, we often have to scramble just to be able to stay sufficiently alive, in a spiritual sense, to be able to protect ourselves against those who would rob us of our God-given birthright to seek out, and live in accordance with, the truth.
Mr. Gartenstein-Ross' cherished vision of Islam collapsed because he ceded his intellectual, moral, and spiritual authority to someone else so that he wouldn't be “regarded as a heretic by his brothers and sisters.” He permitted concerns about how others would perceive him – which is a worry of the ego and not a spiritual principle -- to cloud his judgment and to undermine his spirituality.
Mr. Gartenstein-Ross' cherished vision of Islam was ripped from his heart through a process of undue influence exercised on him by the people involved with the cult-like Ashland Muslim group that was associated with the allegedly charitable al-Harimain Foundation. Having been exposed to similar people and situations, I know the incredibly relentless, stifling, and oppressive pressure which can be placed on a person to induce him or her to submit to the theological propaganda being espoused by such fundamentalist-leaning self-proclaimed leaders.
Perhaps, the biggest difference between Mr. Gartenstein-Ross and myself is that I had someone whom I could trust to help me, by God's Grace, to resist permitting my understanding of, and love for, Islam to become corrupted. By his own admission (which was noted previously), Mr. Gartenstein-Ross had no one whom he could trust to help him protect his cherished view of Islam, and, consequently, he became “depressed, helpless, and confused” … just the sort of psychological and emotional condition which people of unscrupulous spiritual nature – such as the leaders of the Ashland Group -- love to take advantage of because a person who is drowning doesn't tend to consider what the cost may be when someone of questionable spiritual integrity throws one what seems to be a life line.
Mr. Gartenstein-Ross' experience was with a group that had a Salafi orientation. However, there are other fundamentalist-oriented groups within the Muslim community with whom he might have become entangled.
Moreover, although Mr. Gartenstein-Ross generally has good things to say about the Sufis throughout his book, the sad fact of the matter is that not all groups and teachers who refer to themselves as Sufi are necessarily authentic. We live in truly precarious spiritual times when spiritual counterfeiters are virtually everywhere and are busily engaged in trying to pass off what is ultimately worthless as legitimate spiritual tender.
Actually, on the one hand, given the obvious warmth that Mr. Gartenstein-Ross felt toward the Sufis,and given that it was his friend at Wake Forest who introduced him to Islam through ideas and teachings which were Sufi-oriented, and given that Mr. Gartenstein-Ross even took Shahadah with a Sufi group in Italy, one might ask the question of why the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam didn't communicate, in some way, with his Sufi connections in order to find a way of trying to counter what the Salafi group at the Ashland al-Harimain center were doing as that group pulled the author deeper into the depths of the group's world view. On the other hand, the fact of the matter is that his friend at Wake Forest had himself come under the influence of a fundamentalist group and had largely distanced himself from the Sufi perspective. Furthermore, once these sort of fundamentalist groups are successful in creating a sense of vulnerability in a person such that the individual begins to have doubts about how to go about seeking spiritual truth, and, as a result, the individual begins to cede more and more of her or his intellectual, moral, and spiritual authority to the leaders of the fundamentalist group, then, a person becomes less and less inclined to consider any source of understanding as being reliable except that which one is told is authentic by the fundamentalist group. In short, one begins to exist in an almost hermetically sealed environment in which seeking access to information and behaviours other than what the fundamentalist group are espousing doesn't tend to enter one's mind or heart.
In effect, one begins to self-censor one's own thoughts, feelings and behaviours in order to try to fit in with what is going on around one and to be accepted by the group. Moreover, whenever one says or does something which runs counter to the worldview of the fundamentalist group with which one is associating, one undergoes a new round of criticism, censorship, and indoctrination by the other group members … which, in time, leads to further forms of self-censorship.
Little by little, one is emptied of oneself and replaced by the worldview of the group. The pressure applied to the individual is somewhat like what happens when a boa constrictor wraps its body around, say, a human being.
The person seeks to take in new air. However, at some point, the individual also has to exhale. When the individual does this, the boa constrictor wraps more tightly around the individual which, in turn, restricts the ability of the individual to take in new air with the next round of breathing.
This cyclical process of increasing constriction continues until the person is unable to take in any new air at all and/or the person's bones begin to break. What happens within fundamentalist groups as well as within inauthentic Sufi groups is similar to the interaction between a boa constrictor and its prey, except that in the case of such groups, it is the mind, heart, and soul of the individual which is broken, and as well the individual becomes less and less willing – because of the group pressure which is being applied -- to take in new information and possibilities concerning the nature of truth and justice.
Toward the latter part of his book, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross describes some of the factors which played a role in his leaving what he believed to be Islam and converting to Christianity. Let us leave aside the issue that, perhaps, what Mr. Gartenstein-Ross left was not Islam but, instead, was someone's theological invention which the fundamentalist group in question referred to as Islam and, thereby, helped confuse people like Mr. Gartenstein-Ross who, while being very interested in learning about Islam, unfortunately, took up associating with the wrong people … people who led him further away from Islam rather than deeper into it.