• Mohamad Tabbaa

Reactionary Skin, Godly Masks: Only Traditional Scholarship could turn Nietzsche Postmodern

Updated: May 26, 2020

Something has been bothering me lately.

And by lately, I really mean this past decade.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s prevailed, this problem, for far longer than a decade, but it appears to have intensified particularly over these last ten years. Or perhaps I’ve simply begun noticing it more.

I’m talking about the peculiar caste of ‘traditional Islam' advocates and their less-than-considered takes on contemporary affairs.

I need not go into too many examples here; anybody who hasn’t lived under a rock knows what I’m referring to: blaming terrorism on a lack of Adab or education; unabashedly applauding the announcement of the War on Terror; idealising the nuclear family in response to the moral panic on gay marriage…

Need I go on?

I partly blame myself, at least in the local context.

I and many others alike had pleaded for years, both publicly and privately, for scholars to engage more seriously in political and contemporary matters. God knows we all need guidance in these complex times. Would that we could eat our words. For we had banked on what should have been a reasonable assumption: namely, that scholars in one field (Islamic sciences) would naturally approach another field (Humanities) with an equally scholarly rigour.

How wrong we were.

What should be a straightforward matter of applying scholarly methodologies to a different subject matter, has instead exposed an unwillingness to be challenged and a disregard for scholarly integrity. What should be a recognition of a knowledge limitation, instead becomes an insecure farce, as many resort to religious blackmail in the face of a challenge, casting doubt over their counterpart’s religion rather than conceding their own illiteracy in the topics under discussion.

My disappointment was recently stoked when I attended what was supposed to be a panel discussing exactly this topic, between Dr. Yassir Morsi, a friend and former colleague specialising in race studies, and Mohammad Acharki, specialising in Islamic sciences, as well as Shabeer Zacky, who I can only describe as an endearing positivist. Having not attended any such events for quite a while, I made the effort based on one last morsel of hope. Please be better, I recall thinking about Acharki as I sat in the audience. I genuinely wanted to be convinced that ‘traditional Islam’, as taught in contemporary circles, had the answers to today’s troubles.

The discussion, if it can be called that, was ultimately disappointing, quickly veering into the land of abstract values and the traditionalist’s favourite term, epistemology. The nature of the discussion demonstrated exactly where the divide currently rests: Acharki insisting that our priority ought to be in keeping our epistemologies pure and Islamic, Morsi desperately trying to wrestle the topic back to a discussion on lived realities. But of what value is an epistemologically pure mind if we ourselves are embodied in materialism by design, I tried to reason. And how exactly is this clean separation of body and mind not inherently secular, Morsi pleaded.

When did Ihsan become a matter of mental consistency rather than striving towards perfect action?

The event was disappointing mainly because I had in fact invested a hope in Acharki: a young man with a solemn demeanour and obvious genuineness, committed to studying traditional Islamic sciences in Morocco, he is a respectable figure. If anybody was going get it, it was him. It was therefore disappointing to see just how vast the rift was between those who study the Islamic sciences and those who study the world we live in, and how the former could even be called legitimate without the latter. (After all, is Fiqh anything other than a principled response to the conditions of reality?)

I was then invited to attend a similarly-framed debate in Sydney, this time between Morsi and popular neuroscientist, Dr. Mohamed Ghilan. Unable to attend, I am now breathing a sigh of relief – as it turns out, I’m advised by numerous reliable sources, the event was somewhat of a shamble. It’s not the first time I’ve come across Ghilan and his commentary, which are simply more articulate formations of what every other Facebook Islamist is getting wrong about these topics.

A toxic fusion of conservatism and reactionism, these approaches usually adopt the talking points of popular conservative figures (Jordan Peterson is a current favourite), and weave ‘Islamic evidences’ into their otherwise matching responses. Feminism, sexuality, identity, race and a host of other supposed threats are attacked haphazardly without the slightest commitment to actually understanding what these things mean before attributing the downfall of humanity to them. At least Acharki was honest enough to ask Morsi what intersectionality meant.

As it turns out, Ghilan doesn’t take to defeat or challenge very well, launching into a tirade against Morsi and ‘postmodernism’ both during and after the event. The maturity of Ghilan’s approach is best represented in a Facebook post shortly after the debate, whereby he contrasts philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote, “God is dead”, with the statement of Allah in the Hadith Qudsi, “I am as my servant thinks I am.” Apparently the meaning is apparent, with no commentary posted or required. Supposedly this shows the shallowness and moral bankruptcy of ‘postmodern’ thinkers. What it shows in fact is Exhibit A of the phenomenon I’m discussing, and worryingly shares the logic of the Islamophobe who quotes a Qur'anic verse about killing in much the same decontextualised manner as a way of ‘proving’ the violent nature of Islam.

How are we to take the aptitude of learned religious men seriously when they’re ‘debunking’ a thinker they’ve clearly never bothered to read or understand?

Even a cursory glance at Wikipedia would have instantly shown up just how embarrassing and immature the attempted takedown was, and would have shown how Nietzsche was not, in fact, describing (much less celebrating) the literal death of God, but rather lamenting the death of the possibility of God due to the “triumph of scientific rationality over sacred revelation” brought about by the Enlightenment.

The paragraph in which the popular phrase appears provides the context:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”[1]

Nietzsche’s fear, again easily found on Wikipedia, is that the killing off of God would inevitably lead to “a rejection of belief in an objective and universal moral law” and ultimately to “nihilism”. Basically, how can one anchor universal values without referencing a divine?

Is this something a traditionalist Muslim fundamentally disagrees with and mocks?

I don’t intend on mincing my words here. The above ‘rebuke’ demonstrates about as much intellectual depth as an uncovered lollipop, and about as much value. It tastes sweet but offers no nutritional benefit. It’s immediately gratifying but ultimately unhealthy. Just like a lollipop, Ghilan’s profound takedown is artificial.

Worse, it’s dishonest and irresponsible. It’s ultimately unscholarly.

Can you imagine Al-Ghazali’s famous takedown of philosophers (and philosophy as such) being based not on a laborious undertaking to first understand philosophy in order to refute it, but on ‘common sense’, or worse, a sentence or two plucked from a random text without context? This is essentially what we are being asked to respect as scholarship today. We won’t.

By way of example, I used to censure my 18 year-old, first-year students: if you’re intent on discrediting an author you know nothing about, at least read their Wikipedia entry lest you embarrass yourself. Is this the standard we wish to entertain for our knowledge leaders?

The above is simply a minor example of a much broader phenomenon of Traditional Islam advocates using pop-culture readings of ideas, rather than taking seriously the subjects they comment on. Even basic realities that should be recognised by default somehow catch many figures off-guard. Imagine our sheer horror at having to spend hours trying to demonstrate to a group of imams the political nature of a police-organised Iftar on the eve of the introduction of new anti-terror laws, all to no avail.

The worrying part is the fact that this callous approach to the Humanities is not confined to a circle of uncles within the community, as we had initially feared, but is now being absorbed by younger generations (mainly men). It's not rare to find them revelling online in their self-assured belief that they are somehow winning a cold war against cultural-Marxists, not recognising the reality that so many people are simply shaking their heads in embarrassment at the dismal state of affairs that is much of today’s scholarship.

How long before today’s Islam mimics mainstream Christianity and becomes a set of empty platitudes devoid of any meaningful uses for the believer?

Remind me again who it is that’s killing God?

It is little surprise then that so many young Muslims experience a traumatic culture shock when entering university and engaging these ideas seriously for the first time. Faced with opponents who have actually bothered to read a book, off-hand dismissals that pass at a scholarly level no longer suffice even in first-year, and these Muslim students must now make a choice: hastily retreat, learn and engage, or simply submit, oftentimes leaving their religion behind in the process. Far from leading young Muslims astray, then, as is often accused, the likes of Morsi are equipping young Muslims with the tools – and importantly, confidence – currently lacking for them to take on the very real challenges today’s discourses present.

Let me be clear.

This is not a call to respect, let alone accept or endorse any of the abovementioned theories or approaches. This is simply a call to respect the integrity of scholarship, and to respect the intelligence of the congregation. Is that really too much to ask?

So here’s the deal. If you wake up tomorrow with an irrepressible urge to smash postmodernism, deconstruct poststructuralism, tear apart postcolonialism, go to town on Marxism or annihilate feminism, please do so, by all means.

But first, learn them. The right to criticise must be earned, not assumed.

That’s our tradition.


[1]Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125. [And no, before another mighty blow is landed, The Gay Science is not about the science of homosexuality].

*The original version of this blog stated that Mohammad Acharki studied in Mauritania, which was incorrect. He studies in Morocco.

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