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Islam as a Theology of the Margins

Esack’s exegesis is also significant because he forces Muslims to reconsider the context in which they articulate understandings of Islam. Since the 1990s, the question of whether Islam and Islamism are synonymous with terrorism has taken centre-stage in public discourse in Europe and North America.[1] The 9/11 attacks of 2001 have entrenched this discourse further. Indeed, 9/11 has become the overwhelming backdrop in which contemporary Islamic thinking has taken shape, with Muslim spokespeople and intellectuals eager to prove the compatibility of a peaceful, tolerant Islam with Western values. To quote Esack’s words:

All of us are forced by the context of 9/11 to find a moderate Islam, a beautiful Islam, a gentle Islam. Why should the context of occupation not force us to find an angry Islam?155

Common Word needs to be located within this larger post-9/11 project of presenting a good Islam—one that does not challenge the powers that be but simply affirms empty expressions of religious tolerance, world peace, greater understanding—in juxtaposition to a bad Islam, which is confrontational, anti-imperialist, militant. This is not to imply that deep-seated misconceptions about Islam do not abound. Islam is often portrayed by Islamophobes as a violent, authoritarian faith of fear, as opposed to Christianity, which is presented as a religion that promotes love and tolerance.[2] Rather, my point here is that, for Esack, the most important question is: in whose context do we approach Islam? In a global context of manifest injustice, a friendly, law-abiding Islam projected through the lens of the powerful will inevitably devolve into a theology of accommodation, toeing the simplistic lines of peace and dialogue, while an Islam channelled through the experiences of the oppressed will take on a fundamentally different character. In fact, Esack writes, if one’s eyes are those of the world and not of the USA, then it is capitalism, not religious fundamentalism, which represents the most devastating form of terrorism.[3] The very fact that one country—the USA— consumes half of the world’s natural resources speaks volumes about the glaring maldistribution of wealth.[4] It is this stark reality of economic deprivation, in which the affluent North rides with complete impunity on the broken back of the South, that forms the principal context through which Esack articulates his faith.

Questions of authenticity are central to theologies that seek to accommodate the unjust status quo. In their hermeneutical quest to present a peaceful, passive, and beautiful Islam, critiques Esack, liberal Muslims persistently claimed that their reading of Islam was the only authentic one, that they alone adhered to ‘true Islam’ while other Muslims, particularly Wahhabis and militant oppositional figures like Osama Bin Laden, were not really Muslim, did not really practice Islam.[5] This desire to claim authenticity, however, is not restricted to post-9/11 liberal Muslim discourse, but is a signature trademark of accommodationist theology, which posits its understanding and practice of religion as the correct one.[6] Conversely, radical interpretations rooted in protest and the struggle for liberation are Othered within theologies of accommodation as inauthentic. A recurring frustration for Barlas (whose work we will engage in Chapter 5) was that the language she used in her gender-sensitive rereading of scripture—terms like anti-patriarchal, sexual inequality, and liberation—was hastily dismissed by mainstream Muslims as Western concepts alien to Islam.161 Interpretations in confrontation with capitalism, too, have been disregarded by most Muslims as being nothing more than socialist and Marxist ideologies cloaked in Islamic garb,162 and thus lacking genuine authenticity. Yet the fact that these very Muslims, by being complicit in and even actively promoting free-market policies, are as ideological in their (neoliberal) economic thinking does not seem to problematize their own incessant claims to authenticity.

On the contrary, a radical commitment to justice and economic equality has deep roots in the history of Islam. Esack does not claim to be an innovator. Rather, he argues that progressive Islam—one dedicated to the task of liberation for all of humanity—has been present, albeit in the shadows, right from the very beginning of Islamic history,163 tracing all the way back to the practice of Prophet Muhammad. Having little interest in securing an audience within the Meccan corridors of power, Esack writes, the Prophet condemned wealth accumulation and spent his life serving the neglected, praying to God ‘to let him live, die and be raised on the Day of Judgement with the poor.’164 Indeed, the emergence of Islam represented a formidable challenge to the socioeconomic practices of seventh- century Mecca,165 which was a rigidly stratified society. Intrinsic to the Islamic call was a comprehensive reconfiguration of the existing order, and it was because of the profound socioeconomic implications

That being said, I would argue that such dissident actors make assertions of authenticity precisely in order to challenge the entrenched authenticity claims of the status quo, which exercises hegemony over what constitutes truth.

  • 161 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, xii.
  • 162 Omid Safi ed., Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003), 7. To be sure, Muslim Marxists have not made serious attempts to interpret Islamic texts, such as the Qur’an, in light of their ideological commitments. As Safi—a progressive Islamic scholar—observes, their lack of engagement with religious texts and traditions is one of the reasons why they have failed to attract mainstream Muslim audiences.
  • 163 Esack, as cited in Wolfe, 15. 164 Esack, On Being a Muslim, 105.
  • 165 Izutsu, 16.

of Muhammad’s monotheism that the Meccan elite rejected his prophecy.[7] But a liberating practice, Esack continues, was not just characteristic of Prophet Muhammad, but of all the prophets of God. Like Muhammad, the prophets of the Qur’an were firmly committed to the oppressed and their own social origins were largely humble, coming from peasant or other lowly backgrounds.[8] In other words, a radical religiosity devoted to justice is, insofar as Qur’anic and prophetic precedence is concerned, more orthodox than the very orthodoxy that dismisses it.

The Qur’anic hermeneutic of Esack thus forces Muslims to ask whose interests—the powerful or the powerless—are being served by their articulation of Islam. The call for reform has become a pervasive discourse in contemporary Islam. But the most important question in any discussion of reform, interjects Esack, should be ‘in response to whose demands do I re-think the meaning and implications of my faith?’[9] That is, reform to what ends? The question of subject is paramount here: are the subjects—the primary actors—of my religious discourse the elites or the people? Is my Islam a theology of the centre or a theology of the margins? These questions are rarely raised in contemporary Islamic discourse. Esack gives the example of fasting in Ramadan. The rationale that is usually given as to why Muslims are commanded to fast in the holy month is in order to empathize with the poor. Yet this explanation is problematic, as it is founded on the presumption that the average Muslim is wealthy or at least self- sufficient.[10] By taking the affluent members of the faith as a default frame of reference, as the subject of Islamic discourse, the poor are Othered—indeed, poverty is treated as an essentially non-Muslim issue—and consigned to the passive role of objects that are to be empathized with through pity and charity. Muslim discourse over the AIDS pandemic, which adversely affects the poor, is another case in point. Esack notes that mainstream Muslim responses to AIDS have, in classic conservative fashion, portrayed the crisis as a form of divine retribution against people who practice the sins of sexual perversity.[11] So not only is there a striking lack of socioeconomic analysis behind the spread of the virus, such as the fact that the market actually profits from holding back treatments to victims through patents or even the basic knowledge that the most common form of transmission is not sex but contaminated needles, but the AIDS crisis is treated, too, as a non-Muslim problem. This is a pandemic that apparently affects other people, not us. The very idea of a Muslim afflicted with HIV or AIDS becomes an oxymoron, despite the reality that countless Muslims continue to live and die with the disease. The critical intervention of Esack’s hermeneutic, therefore, is that it shifts the locus of Islam from the dominant centre to the much maligned margins, to those people—Muslim or otherwise—for whom poverty and disease, patriarchy and dispossession are inescapable facts of life. Furthermore, this hermeneutical transition in subject, Esack argues, will transform the language of Islam, thereby allowing for a more liberating vocabulary to emerge. Consider the revamping of the term jihad (sensationally rendered as Holy War but literally meaning struggle) in the discourse of progressive Muslims involved in the anti-apartheid movement. For these Muslims the objective of jihad was neither the Islamist project of creating an Islamic state nor the liberal Muslim project of inner exertion, of attaining spiritual enlightenment from within, but rather—through solidarity and struggle with the oppressed—the establishment of a just social order.[12]

  • [1] Lockman, 223. 155 Esack Interview, 2009.
  • [2] Sells, 23. 2 Esack, ‘Religio-Cultural Diversity’, 184.
  • [3] 158 Esack, On Being a Muslim, 105.
  • [4] 159 Esack, ‘In Search of Progressive Islam Beyond 9/11’, 83.
  • [5] 160 I do not mean to suggest that rhetorical claims of authenticity are the preserve
  • [6] of accommodationist theology, as dissident figures and groups routinely presentthemselves as the most authentic and genuine spokespersons of the faith. I am gratefulto James McDougall and Paul Joyce (in discussion with the author) for this insight.
  • [7] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 138. 2 Ibid, 99.
  • [8] 168 Esack, ‘The Contemporary Democracy and the Human Rights Project for
  • [9] Muslim Societies’, 125.
  • [10] Esack, On Being a Muslim, 34. Significantly, the Qur’an’s own stated rationalefor fasting is solely to achieve taqwa (God-consciousness): ‘O you who believe! Fastinghas been prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you mayattain taqwa’ (Q. 2:183).
  • [11] Esack and Chiddy, 4.
  • [12] For the references to liberationist versus Islamist understandings of jihad, seeEsack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 107 and Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide,178. For the reference to liberal Muslim interpretations of jihad, see Esack, ‘In Searchof Progressive Islam Beyond 9/11,’ 83.
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