By: Yahiya Emerick
As the years roll by, I’m sure you’ve noticed, as well as I have, that there is now a tremendous amount of Islamic literature being written in English. Not just books being translated from Arabic or Urdu, but original works which are written with only the English speaking world in mind. This phenomenon is only about ten years old. Before that, virtually everything available to English speaking Muslims (and non-Muslims) was written in another language and cultural mind-set.
Today, with the firm establishment of Islam in North America, Muslims here are no longer dependent on the works of those overseas. (An interesting side-note is that Islam is just now making headway into the Spanish speaking world and we can see that almost everything available in Spanish has been translated from English. Spanish Islamic literature is at the point English literature was ten years ago.)
At the same time that new literature is being written, an interesting new phenomenon has developed. The literature of the Muslim world written during its dynamic first thousand years is also being translated into English. Books that had been in Arabic, Persian, Urdu or Turkish for centuries are suddenly popping up in English all over the place. All the classics of Islamic literature, all the scholarly books, Sufi manuals, folklore, spiritual books and everything else imaginable is now coming out.
Do you want to read a book written in the year 900? How about 1350 or 1578? Now you can. To this day I’m still amazed that books written about Islam a thousand years ago still have relevance to Muslims today. This is a continuity that Christianity just doesn’t have. No one who reads a Christian book from even two hundred years ago can identify with its message. The religion and its doctrines just change too much. A Muslim writer, however, always sounds contemporary no matter how far away from our own time they wrote. Allahu akbar.
A common theme of many of my previous articles is that Islam has left most of the Muslim world and migrated to the West- the last place on Earth where it can flourish. Good-hearted Muslims have also migrated as well to these safer waters and are building real pockets of Islamic identity here and there. Now, as was noted previously, we see that the whole intellectual/literary tradition of the Muslim world has also abandoned the traditional Muslim heart lands and is making its way West as well. It’s almost like the entire system and culture of Islam is being transmitted to the West over a very large link-up, otherwise known as the English language.
Because they don’t pay attention to Islam in the Muslim world anymore, is it any wonder that even the books have left? All the works of the giants of Islam are coming for us Muslims here in the West: Ibn Taymiyah, Al Ghazali, Jilani, Ibn Kathir, Razi, Ibn Qayyum, Ibn Battutta, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, As Suyuti, Al Jahiz, and on and on.
What this enables Muslims in the West to do is to get a glimpse into the thoughts and lives of people who wrote at a time when Islam was not only a “religion” but also a culture, political reality and daily point of reference. These people lived in places that were governed, more or less so, by the Islamic ethos. Imagine that. The ruler bows to Islam, the people follow Islam, Imams, mystics and scholars are the celebrities, everything is centered on Islam to one degree or another.
It’s so hard for us to imagine because such a thing no longer exists. Even in “Islamic” Iran, all we read about is how the exploding population of the youth want to dance, listen to Madonna and date. (All they seem to do in Pakistan anymore is fight and embezzle.) The same is true in the rest of the Muslim world also. The base culture of the West, with all its hatred of morality and things truly spiritual, has conquered the imagination of the young people of the world. We see it everyday. By Allah, even the children of the big Maulanas are leaving Islam for the “fun” life. Who would have thought?
This is a serious threat to the survival of much of the Muslim world. Everything “Islamic” has been weakened to the point of ineffectiveness. Even when we look at our “scholars” today and the standards for who is one, I hope you realize that if they lived five hundred years ago, our Maulanas, Sheiks and Ulema of today wouldn’t even be considered junior scholars. They would be novices. And this covers all those Arab “scholars” who come over here all the time funded by the kings and dictators, as well as the Sahibs, village Imams, etc… They just are not as learned as scholars used to be. Back in the “golden” age of Islam, even if you had the whole Qur’an memorized, you were still not considered a scholar. Hey, back then, almost everyone memorized either the whole Qur’an or at least significant chunks of it.
Today, very few of the “scholars” are even huffaz (memorizers or guardians of the entire Qur’an,) let alone masters of the things that were taken for granted as signs of scholasticism a thousand years ago. Indeed, the scholars in the old days also memorized, besides the entire Qur’an, dozens of huge hadith books, scholarly works, fiqh books as well as other things. When was the last time you met a “scholar” today who had the Qur’an memorized along with the entire Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Al Mu’watta, Tirmidhi, Umdak as Salih, and seven or eight other big books. You just don’t find any. Such is the decline even in our standards of “scholars.”
A good brother I know once mentioned that a person’s Eman can be measured by what they read. If that’s true, then let’s take a look at the Muslim literary tradition of the past (when Islamic civilization was on top of the world) and compare it to what is written today (when Islam has been defeated politically everywhere.)
Go into any Barnes and Noble, Borders Books or other Western bookstore. What kinds of books will you find? In a word: everything you can imagine. Whether you like sports, mystery novels, cooking, auto mechanics, travel, religion, history, politics, fashion, science fiction, business or whatever, you will find a vast selection of books and magazines to fit your taste. This is a reflection of a society that is at peace with itself in the sense that it is not afraid of any challenge to its identity or values. Western Secularism is on top of the world so people are relaxed enough to read according to their tastes.
Believe it or not, a brief survey of the Muslim world of seven or eight hundred years ago reveals much the same situation. Islam was triumphant and expanding everywhere. If there were military setbacks on the frontiers or disasters like the Mongols sacking Baghdad, they were only temporary defeats. Islam would eventually absorb any forces it encountered. Christianity couldn’t touch Islam. Jews were loyal citizens of the Muslim world, Hindus were hopelessly lost in oddball ideas and Buddhists were no threat. There was no such thing as secularism in the world so atheism and rejection of Allah were never really there to challenge. (It was only when atheism destroyed Christianity that it came after Islam. Although atheism has never beaten Islam, the by-product of atheism, moral relativism, has so weakened Islam that it will take centuries for Muslims to recover.)
If the Salafess had their way, they would make you think that the only books that Muslims were writing in the “Golden Years” were manuals of Fiqh and books against “heresy.” But such is vastly not the case. In as much as you can go into any American bookstore and find books on anything and everything, you could find in Muslim bookshops of a few hundred years ago the exact same situation. (Except there would be no filth or pornography!)
More than just fiqh books and rules books, Muslim authors were writing biographies, travel memoirs, advice books, horse riding manuals, medical books, philosophy texts, love poems, fables and stories, spiritual books, geography manuals, science books, prose, Tafaseer, history, da’wah books, sports manuals and just about anything else you can think up. Muslims in the past were very literate, very well read and their reading selections were very well rounded. That’s because they were secure in their identity as Muslims so it was reflected in the literature they read.
Contrast this with today’s contemporary Islamic offerings. Most books we see are of the “defense/offense” type: hard-core fiqh manuals, denunciations of “incorrectness,” listings of “proper beliefs,” challenges to Western ideologies, political books that are critical of the West and their slaves who rule the Muslim world, as well as books critical of other religions. There is hardly anything else except defensive/offensive books written by contemporary Muslims. This is a reflection of the weakness Muslims feel in their identities. We’re so stressed out, so under fire from all directions, so used to being attacked, so afraid of the next crisis that we go on the offensive and try to criticize others before the next round of them criticizing us. We don’t write books for the Muslim who is secure in his or her identity.
At the same time, we are so used to “Muslims” who don’t have any Islam that we produce books that are hyper-correct (according to our narrow and sometimes culturally-influenced interpretations) to the minutest detail and reject anything that even hints of spiritualism, equating it with the “wild Sufism” or unIslamic cultural traditions that are prevalent all over the Muslim world. There is no room for literature, no stories are welcome, even cookbooks must be thoroughly scrutinized for “suspect” ingredients. We “reject” books at will for minor reasons of taste or opinion and “approve” of those we like- and we only like books written by our own people. (The Salafee type Muslims are notorious for this foolishness.) This clamp on literature is a reflection of our current mind-set. We are not at peace with ourselves and we do not feel secure.
The whole theory about why the “Door to Ijtehad” was closed a long time ago is based on the premise that so much unIslamic garbage was invading the Muslim world that the scholars, themselves, discouraged any further legal reasoning and exploration to keep the basic core of Islam intact. The door to literature, leisure reading and reading for enrichment has been closed too, but not by the scholars. Rather, Muslim civilization was conquered by the West two hundred years ago and all advancements made by Muslims in the arts and sciences were packed into boxes and shipped to the Royal British Museum or elsewhere. Despotic rulers replaced those previous Sultans and Amirs (who at least paid lip service to Islamic rules) and thus, education, art and exploration all but ceased. The Muslim world rolled itself up into a ball and put its head between its hands in fear.
Now that at least our Muslim countries are no longer physically occupied, we see that there are glimmers of light here and there where Muslims want to reassert their Islamic identity. But politically-based Muslim movements seem to be suppressed so brutally that it is truly a time of great struggle. The only people in the Muslim world who are allowed to write and publish, it seems, are the atheists with Muslim names, such as Salman Rushdie. As long as you criticize Islam, the kafir ruling elites and the “liberal” West loves you. But this has produced an unfortunate side effect. Many Muslim leaders have learned to hate all literature simply because they equate it with the secularists and atheists who use it as a tool to corrupt people away from morality. In their irrational hatred, they claim anything beyond fiqh books and the like is haram!
Indeed, today, the ultra-conservative Muslims have banned almost everything that was written in the last thousand years of Islam, unless it’s those dry fiqh manuals and books of “correct” beliefs. They have forbidden song and poetry of any form, literature and stories are completely out as well as anything that talks about spirituality or love of Allah. I’ve talked with several Muslims from this viewpoint who think the only things a Muslim should read are the Qur’an, Bukhari and Muslim, al Albani, the late bin Baz and Ibn Taymiyyah. Everything else is Kufr to them.
Such wild conservatism is not an exclusive feature to the Islamic world. Every other community, whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu or whatever, goes through stages of liberalism and conservatism. There were book burners in Baghdad destroying Al Ghazali’s books even as there were book burners in London burning books by Thomas Moore. Both author’s were destined to have reputations which long outlasted their detractors, but in their lifetimes, they were given a hard thrashing by “conservatives”.
When the Muslim community in the West no longer feels under the constant threat of attack, both physical and intellectual, then people can begin to relax and can live comfortable with their identities as Muslims. Think about it: even the Blessed Prophet told jokes but the Salafees never write anything that makes you even smile, or even feel good inside. Their types of books make you angry and want to fight and argue. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. When a person reads only “approved” books consisting of only fiqh and “correct” ‘aqeedah, they are so starved of the satisfaction of Eman and Sakinah that they always are looking for confrontation. (They usually give up reading!) Do they go out and argue with non-Muslims? Never, they always go and bother Muslims- they succeed literally in chasing many away from the Masajid and Islamic centers.
Have you ever considered that if the Blessed Prophet were alive today that the “conservatives” among us would label him bad names and drive him away? After all, he allowed some forms of singing, public entertainment, poetry, women in the Masjid, story-telling, the education of women, good natured joking, honest questions and even small hand drums, while he forbade harshness, too much “religious talk”, overdone ‘Ibadah, calling other Muslims kafirs, breaking away from your brothers, abusing women, obeying kings and dividing people with slander and hatred. Yes indeed, our “conservative” brothers would not “approve” of his teachings.
Listen to this situation I witnessed: a very nice older brother, a convert, was selling books in a Muslim convention. My booktable was across the aisle from his. He was well-traveled, cultured, pious into next week and filled with Taqwa. Just his face spoke of Eman unbounded! Think of people you have met in the past like that and you can get an idea of the sort of man this was. He was selling books of all types, not the regular books you see often, but books on Islamic philosophy, spiritualism, Sufi-type books, high-end political theory, Muslim-oriented travel literature and the like.
If you could only have seen the showdown I saw! A group of Salafee young men swooped down on him in an instant! They go around looking for trouble, as young men often do, only these zealots used the excuse of religion to enter into arguments and controversy. Those three or four men started criticizing the man for carrying books they didn’t approve of and then they set about to try and convince him that only by “establishing the Khilafah” would Islam really advance. (As if he opposed the concept of a Khalifa!) They quoted ayat and ahadith left and right and tried every angle of attack- as if he did something wrong in the first place!
But little did those guys realize what was in store for them. This man, who had deep and abiding Islamic learning, brushed off their arguments like wiping crumbs from a table. Every time they quoted some hadith, he not only gave the true interpretation of that hadith including the circumstances for its utterance, but he also added tons of ayat and other ahadith they never heard of. Those young men had only memorized what their “Sheikh” approved books had taught them. After over thirty minutes, and in the presence of a now swollen crowd of on lookers, the youths all but gave up their original plan.
Then they tried to go after him using recent political activities in the Middle East and elsewhere. Again, he was so well-read and traveled that he poked holes in everything they said like running a stick through a wet paper bag. My partner and myself were so impressed, as were the people who stood by in awe. In the end, the proud young men melted away, mumbling something about their Sheikh said this or that.
The man didn’t appear annoyed after they left, instead he told us that he gets that all the time from these idealistic young men whose Eman is corrupted by the so-called “Sheikhs” who are merely by-products of the politically charged environments they grew up in. If you grew up in Palestine, Arabia, Egypt or Syria, where everything is charged and ready to explode at moment’s notice, you naturally take anger and hate as your first operating mode of choice. This will come out in how you interpret Islam, he explained.
When Muslims no longer feel the need to be macho about their beliefs to scare others into submission, then the light of Islamic Eman and Taqwa will shine forth as it did in former days of glory. This shift will be reflected in a change in our reading habits. Have you ever wondered why their are virtually no novels written by Muslims in the West, even though there are many in the Arab world and elsewhere (albeit secular)? It’s because we’re still establishing ourselves and we don’t want to let down our guard for a minute. No relaxation; must quote Scholar X,Y or Z; Must keep the proper Daleels in order; that brother has not been challenged and vanquished yet; must beat my son for bringing Michael Jackson tape home; must forbid my wife to go to the Masjid- too many men there and no wall. (Many of us are also busy as all heck trying to get filthy rich!)
My brothers and sisters, can you imagine the lifting of that burden? Of being free from the fear of the constant attacks against your beliefs and culture? Can you imagine not having to “fight for an Islamic state” against every Muslim you find or not being worried about your family drifting into kufr? Can you envision a neighborhood where most everyone is Muslim, where you hear the adhan five times a day and where women and children can go out in the streets and be safe. Could you ever dream of a nation where the non-Muslims were few and who were no threat to you, rather everyone lived in their own communities? Well, just consider the fact that there have been millions of Muslims in the past who lived in just such a situation.
We are mentally ill as an Ummah because we do not have the benefit of a healthy, Islamically-based society. We can’t even say that at least we’re organized and working to establish one.
But we don’t have to languish in fear and uncertainty forever. We don’t have to wait until we have “the Khilafah” before we can start building our Islamic culture. We can do it now. In city X, Y or Z, Muslims have built a Masjid, maybe a Muslim school and there will always be found Halal meat stores and clothing outlets. The next step is to live around each other, but if that’s not happening fast enough, then you can at least broaden your mind as a Muslim.
Read the Qur’an seriously, not as a duty, but because you want to be enlightened- even entertained! It is the book that will lift your soul and elevate your Eman. Read the hadith books, not just the collections that have ahadith talking only about the five pillars and such, but the bigger collections that have the stories, anecdotes and human interest features, such as Riyadh us Saliheen, Mishkatul Masabih, Tirmidhi, Bukhari’s Book on Muslim Morals and Manners, God-Oriented Life and the Hadith Qudsi. Read the biographies of the Sahaba and enjoy them.
In addition, strengthen your Eman with books that speak about the joy of being Muslim. Spiritual books, wisdom books and devotional materials written by Muslims spanning the full era of Islam. They’re available in English now. And then allow yourself to read Muslim written stories, travel memoirs and literature.
If you like to smile and laugh there’s Nasruddin tales; if you like to cry there are Jilani books; if you like to reflect there are Ghazali books; if you like to smile there are Al Jahiz books; if you like stories and adventures there are the Arabian Nights, the Al-Hiriri tales, Shirazi and Nizami and countless other works of literature. Modern works also abound if you would only open your eyes! Do you get the point?
When you are secure as a Muslim, secure in your identity, your reading habits broaden. You allow yourself to enjoy reading for reading’s sake. You steer clear of unIslamic books and bad things, but that is because you are a believer and you wouldn’t like to see them. You accept that the width and breadth of spirituality is wide open and that, as the Prophet said, “There is room for enjoyment in Islam.”