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2024 | OriginalPaper | Chapter

Social Criticism and Islamic Ethics After 9/11: How Muslim Anthropologies Matter

Author : Faraz M. Sheikh

Published in: Religion and Social Criticism

Publisher: Springer Nature Switzerland

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Abstract

Moral subjectivity is an important theme in Miller’s body of work, even though he invokes the term infrequently. Miller’s moral subject is the bearer of inherent and inviolable dignity and, on account of this dignity, the bearer of certain inviolable rights, the bearer of the right to defend those rights against threats, and the bearer of the right to be indignant against actual infractions. A subject forfeits these rights, including, notably, the right to pursue and revise his or her conception of the good, only if the subject threatens to deny or actually denies other moral subjects this right. It is the embrace of reciprocal and hence equal freedom to determine and pursue the good that makes someone a moral subject and an equal member of a community of moral agents. To refuse such consent is to merit rebuke, ostracization, and even punishment from a moral society. While I stand in fundamental agreement with Miller on this point, in this chapter I consider the difficulties that Miller’s account of the free moral self presents to accounts of religious identity, especially Muslim identity as conceived by the moral authorities and religious doctors of the Islamic tradition. I stage a dialogue between Miller and prominent Islamic thinkers and highlight what each can (and also, alas, may not be able to) learn from the other. I conclude with some suggestive ideas in Miller’s account that could bring the two into alignment and even reinforce what I am calling the troika of religious authenticity, moral selfhood, and human dignity.

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Footnotes
1
Soon after 9/11, for instance, Muslim scholar of Islam and a prominent Muslim public intellectual in the US, Sherman Jackson, wrote about Jihad, arguing that while classical Islamic law allowed (even mandated) aggressive military action against non-believers (including Christians) in the age of empires (when war was the default state between those empires), modern Islamic law should revisit and change those legal injunctions in light of the new reality of nation-states that are assumed to be at peace with each other by default. See Jackson (2001, 1–26).
 
2
Miller (2015).
 
3
Sachedina has been a prominent voice both in the US and in the Muslim world, especially in Iran, and his work has been used to argue that Islamic ethics is fully compatible with liberal democratic principles. This makes Miller’s critique all the more important (Sachedina 2014).
 
4
For a discussion of the tendency to see reason as religion’s other and an argument against continuing with this attitude, which unwittingly makes an alliance with the anti-intellectual voices within any given tradition, see Lewis (2016).
 
5
For a good example of Miller’s position on the challenges of cross-cultural analysis and moral criticism, especially as it pertains to the study of Islam and Muslims, see his critique of Saba Mahmood’s ethnographic study on a women’s piety movement in Egypt, in Miller (2016, 75–109).
 
6
Miller makes a distinction between mere recognition respect on the one hand, which is to be extended to all on the basis of their subjectivity and dignity, and appraisal respect which may be denied while still tolerating the other.
 
7
It should be noted that Miller completely ignores Mawdudi’s colonial and post-colonial context that scholars like Irene Oh consider important for understanding his views about human rights and his comparative arguments about Islamic and western notions of equality.
 
8
See Quran 2: 148.
 
9
(2015, 115).
 
10
(2012, 4). Asharites and Mutazilites are the two major theological schools in the Islamic tradition. Mutazilites held that moral qualities had objective reality prior to God’s commands to do good and not do evil and human reason could know good from bad without revelation. Asharites believed God’s commands brought moral value into being so that good was whatever God said He would reward and bad was whatever He said he would punish. Good and bad had no reality outside of God’s revealed will and the ideas of divine reward and punishment.
 
11
A good place to look in order to the epistemological questions at stake in the earliest recorded debates about the status of human actions without/before special revelation (the Quran) is (Reinhart 1995).
 
12
Of course Mutazilites responded to such arguments by Asharites (and Asharites counter-responded) but I am going to leave the matter here as a fuller discussion will take us out of the scope of the present essay.
 
13
Miller notes that the problem with intolerant Muslim extremists is that they do not make the important distinction between recognizing something and endorsing it. They imagine that if they recognize something they don’t agree with, they are also endorsing it. This makes them intolerant. This is an important observation.
 
14
Nursi’s is a distinctly modern and non-traditional interpretation of the Quran as an existential-psychological discourse that blends genres of mystical and rationalistic exegesis of the Quran. Nursi’s works enjoy widespread readership and growing influence across the globe even as his interpretive methodology and its subtle but radical implications are not understood and remain under-appreciated in Islamic studies and religious studies. A few recent studies of Nursi worthy of note are Bouguenaya and Yazicioglu (2021) and Tuna (2017, 311–340).
 
15
I have used Muhammad Asad’s translation as a rough guide here. Quran 95:4–6.
 
16
For irresolvable problems with translating the Arabic, Quranic term iman as faith or belief (words which I therefore use interchangeably here since neither are quite suitable but easy alternatives are not available), see Jaques (2010, 53–71). Similarly, I ignore the subtle differences between the words unbelief and disbelief and use these terms interchangeably here to refer to, minimally, both the absence, and a more conscious rejection, of faith in God’s existence and in divine judgment or accountability in an afterlife.
 
17
For a detailed discussion of the use of the metaphor of mirror for a human being in Islamic tradition, see Zargar (2017).
 
18
(2008, 322). Nursi takes the soul’s desires to be promises of the divine for someone who connects them to the divine. To paraphrase Nursi: If God didn’t want to give something to man, he wouldn’t have given man the desire for it. This way of thinking is only possible, Nursi argues, if one does not think of one’s desires as natural desires of the physical side of human beings but as qualities in the soul that are related to the divine, acting like messengers from the divine to the human being. In another place Nursi says, “the desire for perpetuity existing in all men by virtue of their very nature, is a desire that lifts men from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high.” (2008, 81).
 
19
The exceptions are there, for Nursi, to prove the rule. Some plants will still die so that it remains clear it is not the water that gives life for sometimes even its presence would not by divine will, not produce life. Nursi holds that prayers are always answers but that’s different from God giving you what you are asking for.
 
20
For Nursi, it is insulting to the infinite number of beings to refuse to acknowledge their attributes as sacred. This insult deserves infinite punishment. Eternal punishment is just, he says, because the recompense matches the scope of the crime. Nursi is vehemently against naturalism because in his world, nothing breaks the relation with the divine more swiftly than naturalism (thinking that beings and their attributes are natural qualities, referring to nothing other than themselves) and nothing restores it more swiftly than rejecting a naturalist interpretation of the world.
 
21
Nursi (2000, 24).
 
22
Miller says that social criticism, such as his own, is attentive to respect for persons and “must include considerations of one’s own equal dignity as a moral subject.” (2015, 82).
 
Literature
go back to reference Bouguenaya, Yamina and Yazicioglu, Umeyye. 2021. Living the Quran with Joy and Purpose. Gorgias Press. Bouguenaya, Yamina and Yazicioglu, Umeyye. 2021. Living the Quran with Joy and Purpose. Gorgias Press.
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go back to reference Nursi, Bediuzzaman Said. 2008. “The Twenty-Third Word” in The Words: On the Nature and Purposes of Man, Life and All Thing. Translated by Sukran Vahide Istanbul: Sozler Publications. Nursi, Bediuzzaman Said. 2008. “The Twenty-Third Word” in The Words: On the Nature and Purposes of Man, Life and All Thing. Translated by Sukran Vahide Istanbul: Sozler Publications.
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go back to reference Sachedina, Abdulaziz. 2014. Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights. Oxford University Press. Sachedina, Abdulaziz. 2014. Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights. Oxford University Press.
go back to reference Tuna, Mustafa. 2017. “At the Vanguard of Contemporary Muslim Thought: Reading Said Nursî into the Islamic Tradition.” Journal of Islamic Studies 28(3): 311-340.CrossRef Tuna, Mustafa. 2017. “At the Vanguard of Contemporary Muslim Thought: Reading Said Nursî into the Islamic Tradition.” Journal of Islamic Studies 28(3): 311-340.CrossRef
go back to reference Zargar, Cyrus Ali. 2017. The Polished Mirror: Storytelling and the Pursuit of Virtue in Islamic Philosophy and Sufism. Oneworld Academic Press. Zargar, Cyrus Ali. 2017. The Polished Mirror: Storytelling and the Pursuit of Virtue in Islamic Philosophy and Sufism. Oneworld Academic Press.
Metadata
Title
Social Criticism and Islamic Ethics After 9/11: How Muslim Anthropologies Matter
Author
Faraz M. Sheikh
Copyright Year
2024
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-48659-3_4

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