City of Brass

City of Brass

infantilizing the Ummah

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

This article in the Economist takes an interesting and detailed look at the religious practices of South Asia’s Sufi muslims. There is a large amount of syncretism between Hinduism and Islam in the region, as there is between Islam and and Christianity in the Balkans and between Islam and Confucian thought in western China. What is notable about South Asian Sufism however is the explosion in art and architecture that it has spurred, particularly in teh building of large tombs for venerated saints.

As the article points out, the practice of building these tombs is at odds with conservative orthdoxy (notably salafist doctrines like Wahhabism). Muslims of that persuasion have characterized these tombs as expressions in shirk (idolatry), and that is the same general argument used by the Saudi religious authorities to justify their systematic obliteration of Mecca’s historical legacy.

In other words, the argument is that those muslims who build these tombs are replacing Allah with the people buried within. They are, in the view of salafists in general and Wahhbis in particular, rejecting the basic oath of a muslim (there is no God but God) and praying to these mortal men instead for intercession. What they do not see is that the act of building a tomb is an expression of love, not for the deceased to replace God but to thak them for helping the muslim strengthen their faith. These people to whom tombs are built range from minor saints like Hafiz Iqbal to great martyrs of the faith like Imam Husain AS. Without exception, these great people showed muslims the true path towards the light of Islam, not away from it.

Personally, I find it deeply offensive to reductively characterize the beliefs of a third of the world’s muslims as shirk simply because they build tombs. To argue that the simple expression of love in building a tomb and engaging in ziyarat (remembrance) is necessarily equivalent to the blasphemy of the Khawarij is to infantilize muslims rather than treat them as brothers in faith. This is a condescending argument, in many ways analogous to the colonial attitude that justified so much misery and outright destruction of heritage and culture, for “their own sake”.

That condescension is not limited to, nor even a necessary feature of, Wahabism. Rather it is a general human tendency, to rationalize our own actions by declaring the actions of others inferior, thereby to avoid the hardest thing of all, to engage in critical self-examination .I don’t think any of us is truly capable of engaging ourselves critically, which is why it is important that we maintain diversity within Islam, so that we may provide a healthy check and balance to each other, and thus keep us all moving forward. But if we were all to be the same, then we would be all the more easily led astray.

  • Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    Having now reread the article a couple of times, it is indeed interesting. Perhaps I do not understand what you mean by infantilizing, because I actually think it is you who are infantilizing by basically suggesting that we should not question or discuss what other Muslims do or say but should just chalk it up to diversity and appreciate it. These are not children we are talking about, there actions and beliefs can be discussed and critiqued like anyone else’s, no? Yes, religious beliefs and practices which are deeply important to people should be treated with some care, but to the extent that these people are claiming what they do is Islam, they are dealing with my own beliefs and practices, no?
    In fact, if you notice in the article although the Bogeyman of the Taliban/Wahhabism is constantly felt as an ominous presence, it is the Sufi scholars who are quoted in the article as describing some of the practices mentioned as shirk. And what is described in the article is not the mere construction of tombs (although that is problematic in and of itself) but people who are attributing miracles, omniscience and other divine qualities to the dead saints buried in the tombs, and others who are, according to their own selves, praying to and offering sacrifice to the dead saints. Again, I think it is you who are infantilizing the people engaged in these activities by somehow arguing that they are not really doing what they say they are doing but they are just honoring and loving the dead saints.
    No doubt they see what they are doing as honoring and loving those saints, and no doubt they think that what they are doing brings them closer to God, but if you read Qur’an the exact same thing is argued by the Jahili Arabs when the Prophet Muhammad (saw) tells them to stop engaging in the worship of their idols and when Christians are urged not to worship Jesus (pbuh) or his mother (may have Mercy on her).
    Was Allaah (swt) or the Prophet (saw) infantilizing the people by engaging with their actions and beliefs? Are you arguing that it is never right to claim that anything another Muslim does can be wrong (or can be shirk) because they are our brothers and sisters in faith?
    I really don’t follow. I appreciate the general call to be tolerant and more critical of oneself than others, I really do. But if there is anything one should speak out against as a Muslim, it is shirk. And again, we are not talking here about things which different scholars have differed, we are talking about things which the sufi scholars call shirk.

  • Martyn Oliver

    Dear Aziz,
    Thanks for this post. I think most people don’t realize the tremendous variety in the expression of Islam worldwide, and your focus on this is helpful in starting to illustrate that.
    As for Abu Noor Al-Irandee’s comment, there is also a useful distinction raised, but I’m not sure of if all the parameters are clear. At play are issues of religious piety, historicism, sectarianism, and theology: a heady and complicated admixture of issues. So often, one person’s shirk is another’s sacred duty–how does this get resolved?
    I’ll look forward to your continued discussion of these issues. In the meantime, I think its important to remember that there has always been a fluctuating discourse within Islam as to the tension between honoring prophets and saints versus the appearance of heresy. This is not new, and will always be with us. I think the key question will remain: how is it adjudicated?
    Thanks again,

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