Practical Tips for Skimming the Qur’an: Or, How to Study Islam without Rigour

In a world where media outlets are now plucking Middle East experts from the ranks of heavyset non-Arabic-speaking private military contractors (who have never interracted with people from “these cultures” unless they were heavily armed and travelling in up-armoured convoys), a few colleagues of mine over at the Australian National University have started a great new project called “Re-Anth”. Envisioned as a clearinghouse for popular, prescient scholarship in the social sciences, the general objective of Re-Anth is simple – to reintroduce anthropological thinking into the wider social and political discourse. As such, this will hopefully be the first of many contributions I can make to their new blog.

The first topic I’ve been asked to write about is the concept of “praxis”  one of those great buzzwords you will only ever come across in postgraduate anthropology seminars or in vaguely-meaningful but mostly arcane discussions of Hegel’s contributions to philosophy.

Praxis, in the context which anthropologists use it, refers to the process by which immaterial concepts and ideas (Aristotle’s theoria) are realised by action – the bridge between what Hannah Arendt saw as the two defining categories of human thought and behaviour – “vida contemplativa” (the contemplative life) and “vida activa” (the active life).

While the term itself suffers from a terminal case of jargonitis (in part because praxis is an import word from ancient Greek and in part because praxis is also the German for “practice” which has a separate meaning in English-language anthropology), the spirit of the praxis concept is as follows: there exists a process which connects the things people think about with the things people do and that mapping this contemplation-action algorithm is key to understanding how a member of a particular cultural group is likely to think and behave under a given set of conditions.

There is a huge body of theoretical muck out there to wade through in one’s search for a definition of praxis (from experience, this can actually lead to a reduced understanding of the concept) but since praxis, like anthropology itself, is practically-oriented (or indeed, praxically-oriented) a good way to grapple with the concept can be found by thinking about a religion like Islam not only as a “practice” (that is, something someone does) but also as a “process” (the contemplative and active steps which lead to the doing). By reflecting on the process by which religious texts like the Qur’an (a body of work that contains various theoria) are interpreted and then incorporated into the daily lives of individuals, for example, one can observe the praxis concept in the field.

As a student of Islamic societies, the process by which the Quran is brought into the material world is the textbook example of the praxical process and similarly, if one looks at a political project like “Marxism” – which Antonio Gramsci referred to as “the philosophy of praxis” in his Prison Notebooks  one can observe an analogous process (indeed, a revolutionary strategy) by which a utopian ideal is interpreted and then progressively introduced into society by the Marxist. Both the Marxist revolutionary process and Quranic exegesis-enactment (as a hermeneutic process) therefore, are examples of praxiin the wild”.

With praxis thus defined and with the title of this post suggesting that there is something lacking in how “Islam” is characterized in public discourse, it is now incumbent upon us to consider how the praxis concept might improve the way we think about Islam, re-injecting some intellectual rigor into the discussion.

As I’ve discussed previously, the “true meaning” of any text (especially a religious text) is ultimately interpretive. This should be self-evident to anyone who studied “the novel” in high school – especially if one’s English teacher was intent on extruding bizarre, hidden meanings from the most innocuous of sentences. Certainly, the fact that deciphering a text is an interpretive process (praxis) should be self-evident to anyone who is familiar with the way in which the law is interpreted by the courts. As Barack Obama said of the US Constitution in his final address as President: “it’s really just a piece of parchment.  It has no power on its own.  We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make.”

The “participation and choices” which Obama speaks of is, in this instance, a description of constitutional praxis – the process by which the law is interpreted, reflected upon, incorporated and then lived by “We the People”.

To Islamic scholars, the praxis concept is encapsulated by a process called ijtihad – the mental and physical effort which connects the Muslim vida contemplativa with the vida activa (to revisit Arendt). Ijtihad therefore, is the process (thus the praxis) through which interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence are constructed. It follows then, that because jurisprudential interpretation is ultimately subjective, sharia (the legal aspect of Islam) cannot be thought of as comprising a single codex and, much like constitutional opinion amongst American jurists, cannot be understood as a monolithic bloc that regulates Muslim behaviour in any single way.

For this reason – that is, because the ijtihad process produces many different interpretations of both sharia and Islam itself, it is uniquely artless to paint a literal “broad church” with such a broad brush stroke. Likewise and for the very same reason, it is equally artless for one to imply that ISIS’ worldview has “nothing to do with Islam” (this is often described as an “apologist” statement by those who themselves detest the label “Islamophobic”).

Having said that, I suspect that there are very few serious scholars of Islam who would claim that Islamist extremism has “nothing to do with Islam”. As both Shadi Hamid and Reza Aslan have argued – it’s not that ISIS’ ideology is “not Islamic” per se (because the very nebulous nature of religious praxis means that if one says it is Islamic then it is Islamic) but rather that using ISIS as a case study to inform a generalization about what it means to be a Muslim is inaccurate and unfair to Muslim minorities in the West.  As such, despite the shrill cries ringing out from the far-reaches of the internet that terrorist-sympathising “snowflake SJW apologists” are amassing in their “safe spaces” to measure just how little of nothing terrorism has to do with Islam, I’m yet to come across any serious peer-reviewed research that would a claim like “ISIS’ foot-soldiers are Muslims”. The critique, therefore, is probably a straw-man argument.

In many ways then, the greatest intellectual failure of “the anti-Islam school” (that is, the school formerly known as “Islamophobic” Prince logo.svg), lies not in its interpretation of Islamic text per se but rather in its refusal to include a discussion of praxis into how Islam is actually lived – that is, the inability to see Islam not merely as a set of practices but also as a process by which the practitioner interprets text and engages with the sacred.

Certainly, it is possible that one could conclude that the Qur’an is intrinsically violent or misogynistic if one selectively read (as ISIS does) verses like 9:5 or 4:34 to the exclusion of contradicting verses like 109:6 and 30:21 (even though, as the anti-Islam school will tell you, later-occurring verses are supposed to abrogate earlier verses). Yes, if you read the Qur’an like that you might find “Islam [monolithic]” guilty of many crimes.

But of course, in order to find Islam guilty of these crimes, one would also have to refute the role of praxis in producing human behaviour – discounting, for example, the possibility that Islam is a living breathing religion (defined by heterodoxy) or that Muslims are followers of a constantly-evolving faith, a community possessing of a diverse collection of doxa that oscillate from “asymptote to asymptote”. So yes, if one used such a myopic approach – that is, if one employed a textualist, literalist, atomistic, and wholly un-holistic approach to religion as an entire field of study, ignoring the fact that interpretation matters or dismissing the empirically-tested finding that diversity of religious opinion exists even in small-scale societies – you might conclude that Islam is, must be, has to be “bad”, “evil”, “antithetical to Western democracy”… as Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie seems to have concluded.

Naturally, if you use this approach, you’ll probably not find much intellectual backing for your work outside the various (group)think-tanks run by Daniel Pipes or Robert Spencer (or, indeed, Richard Spencer). But then, “left-wing SJWs on university campuses”, right?

Ultimately, the bottom line is this: giving credence to the praxis concept is absolutely critical to the study of Islam [not monolithic]. Moreover, if one actually goes out on the streets and talks to Muslims about how they interpret the Qur’an and how that interpretation influences their behaviour (note: this requires interacting with a sample size that is larger than the cellblock of Camp X-Ray or the mullet-wearing Lebanese teenagers hanging out in hotted-up cars down the road), one would probably conclude that diversity of opinion in a religious congregation which comprises more than a fifth of the world’s population might well be infinite; that praxis is really the only thing that counts when crafting generalisations about “Muslims”; and that ultimately, the Qur’an (regardless of whether or not it is the word of God) is simply a collection of words recorded on a sheaf of palm-fronds. To borrow again from Obama, the Qur’an exists but it is up to Muslims through their “participation and choices” to interpret it and live it.

It might seem bizarre that a religion which regulates its phases of worship according to incremental changes in the lunar cycle could have so much diversity of thought. Here though, it’s worth noting that, according to hadith, the notion of ikhtilaf (Arabic: إختلاف) meaning “difference” or “diversity” was seen as a blessing by Muhammad. Indeed, according to a comprehensive study of the subject by Musawaikhtilaf  al-fuqaha (“diversity of opinion amongst jurists”) not only existed as far back as the Abbasid Caliphate but was also respected as a necessary part of realising a truer, greater Islam.

A non-Muslim interested in thinking more about praxis might consider his own practices, and the contemplation-action algorithm that led him there. If, for example, one ascribes to the Christian faith and goes to church every Sunday, consider the following passage in Matthew 6:4-6:6.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Would one say then, that conducting the Sunday ritual at church is “un-Christian”? The answer, of course, is “no”. The only thing that matters here, beyond your self-identification as a “Christian”, is the praxis which underpins the religious choices you have made. In the end, the process of selecting the Sunday ritual and participating in the ritual itself, is the only bit that matters.


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