Towards Interstellar Islam

Syrian space capsule. Damascus, 2007.

What will Islam look like in five billion years? It is our responsibility as Muslims to find an answer. Readers may scoff at the inquiry as childish, but if humanity really does survive that long (and what’s the point if we assume that it won’t?) then we have to grapple with the question of how our faith will look in the distant future.  I grew up in a Salafist household that held steadfast to the rhetoric that “Islam is for all times.” This is only true as long as we continue to renew our understanding of it. How will our religion look in an era that we can only imagine?

As a child, I remember asking my Islamic studies teacher a lot of questions that made my classmates laugh and my brother complain to our mother that I kept “asking Brother Omar such stupid questions.” How will Muslims pray on other planets? How will we gauge whether or not eating alien meat is halal?

Maybe they were stupid questions, but, they were born from my curiosity at how Islam could reconfigure itself under new circumstances. Interstellar Islam may seem ridiculous to us now, but wouldn’t modern politics have seemed wild to the Prophet Muhammad when he told his wife Khadijah about his vision of the Angel Jibra’eel?

If he was asked serious questions about how Muslims would interact with the stars, he probably would have given the same answer as if he was pushed to reveal how the ‘ummah should grapple with post-colonialism. They must look to Islam through a renewed perspective that is appropriate to their historical context. That involves accepting the achievements and horrors of human history, and having the bravery to move forward into a new world.

Next week, I will outline what I believe to be a comprehensive Islamist platform for the 21st century, which attempts to unify the disparate trends of socialism, republicanism, and right-wing Islamism that have defined Muslim societies over the past several centuries. However, before we even do that, we have to take a radical first step: accepting that we have to interact with history in the first place.

There are many reasons that Islamism has become so reactionary. One is that it directs the distress of an alienated ‘ummah towards a right-wing purification of social and political life. Another is that it is cynically pushed towards shallow religiosity by an exploitative elite that has access to oil money. But yet another is that Islamism has become a cocoon for many people.

While Salafism is most notorious when it gets violent in Salafi jihadism, it does not start that way. The Salafi jihad is mainly driven by enthusiastic young people, who want to directly realize the Rashidun Caliphate in public life, rather than privately through prayer and chastity. It begins apolitically, with the idea that modernity is something that must be survived, rather than tackled through a revitalized Islamism that seeks to meet it head on. History, in other words, is a test that must be outlasted.

We should term this trend “cocoon Islamism.” Right-wing Salafism seeks to propagate itself as a closed community that is simply waiting for the alienating and decadent West to destroy itself. “America is going down!” warned my relatives growing up, with the implication being that once it does, we would all gain salvation for being patient.

Salafi jihadist protesters. Morocco, 2011.
Salafi jihadist protesters. Morocco, 2011.

It isn’t exclusive to Salafists. When I started to doubt the ideology, I quickly noticed that it had a great deal in common with the worst strains of Orthodox Judaism, Evangelical Christianity, and even the Hindutva movement. People vary in how political they are in these religions, usually as a result of local factors (for example, American Muslims have tended to be apolitical more because they’re in the United States) but they all share the characteristic of closing themselves in a cocoon. Class privilege makes this easier, especially for Pakistani-Americans who are professional enough that our wealth allows us to lock ourselves in suburbia and wait for the end to come.

We are taught to turn inwards, define ourselves by normative ideas that are actually quite modern like gender binaries and anti-black racism, and wait for an imaginary better world that we cannot quite describe. I have known Muslims who do this in more or less the same fashion as fundamentalist Christians who irrationally wait for the second coming of Jesus.

Unfortunately, this has been true of secularism as well. Although cosmopolitan Muslims in cities like Lahore like to believe that they are superior to their “lesser” brethren, the sort of Islamists that frequent the streets of Peshawar, secularism has formed its own cocoon in the Muslim world.

Cocoon secularism involves all the shortcomings of liberal ideology, especially its views on the marketplace. It refuses to push itself past the failures of the European empires that helped facilitate it in the region, which for Pakistan, is the British Empire. For instance, Pakistan has a major problem with a colonial-era legal code that desperately needs to change, but cocoon secularists refuse to let go, reading any democratic reform that moves the country forward as surrendering it to the Islamists.

Here we see a form of alienation that is areligious in its outlook, but preserves the elements of zeal and provinciality that allows it to define itself against more religious forms of fundamentalism. The starkest example is the New Atheists, a group which likes to believe that it is free from notions like ritual, sacrifice, and domination because it divorces itself from religion (specifically, Christianity.)

However, for people like Richard Dawkins, atheism is its own cocoon, and religion is something that must be survived until reason and science can achieve their ultimate victories. Rather than encouraging a more critical and empowered humanity, these forms of secularism and atheism end up adding to the problem by dedicating themselves to defending against those fundamentalist cocoons.

The irony is that despite their superficial desire for victory, the various cocoons cannot actually abide the idea. They are locked in a fight to the death because in a twisted way, everyone needs each other. Their mutual alienation is legitimized by the hostility of other parties, and if any one of them were ever unraveled, then the worldwide game would risk collapse. They would have to admit that they cannot define themselves without someone to hate, and be forced to face the prospect of a larger sense of peaceful community that is the entire point, but can also be very terrifying.

Queen Elizabeth in burqa. United Kingdom, 2008.
Queen Elizabeth in burqa. United Kingdom, 2008.

This state of affairs cannot continue. We cannot act as though the worst aspects of the modern world, themselves open to debate, are things to be survived rather than transformed for the better. The result is more fragmentation, and a greater inability to engage ourselves in the crucial mobilizations needed to build a better world.

Before we even begin to discuss the type of Islamist politics we can practice, we have to abandon our sectarianism, and reinvent our understandings of core practice, to accept the whole of society rather than await the presumed destruction of particular aspects of it.

We cannot be like Sayyid Qutb, who defined the worst aspects of his ideology against American cultural exports like jazz. It benefits no one to resist modern culture, and achievements like the theory of evolution, as challenges to our faith. It simply makes people suffer needlessly, and also stunts us spiritually, because we eliminate the possibility that we can be Muslims without willfully possessing fear and ignorance. We never give ouselves the chance to live Islam without irrationality. Besides: how can we possibly have any claims to morality when we are stuck in the need for moral superiority?

We have to give ourselves permission to accept how the world has changed, and tackle the fact that our understanding of Islam, including Islamist politics, must reconfigure itself with it. If we resist, then we simply have to remember that cocoon Islamism is itself, as I keep saying, simply another form of grappling with those questions.

It is only then that we can begin to formulate an Islamist politics of today. This is crucial. The twin calamaties of rampant inequality, and climate change, will soon morph human civilization in ways we can only imagine. The crises ahead will only come to an end once humanity embraces a new post-carbon consensus that tackles such various factors as resource distribution, energy consumption, and participatory democracy.

Islamism can play a pivotal role in those discussions, as the alternative democracy of the 21st century. For many Muslims, it is already that. Modern Islamism acts on essentially the same energies as traditional leftist ideologies before it, especially for many of our community’s most alienated and disenfranchised members.

The challenge is to meet that phenomenon with something that is far more critical than right-wing Salafism. Islamism must be retooled immediately, through revitalized understandings of kalamijtihad, and fiqh that best reflect modern circumstance. That means nothing less than an Islamist alternative to social, economic, and political structures that at once accepts the legacy of European liberalism, and pushes it forward beyond its shortcomings.

Once that happens, we may even be on track to reinvent those concepts once Muslims start leaving the Milky Way.


Photographs courtesy of David Holt, Maghrebia, and bixentro.  Published under a Creative Commons License.

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