Sister Walaa has interviewed a fair number of attendees at various Sufi retreats, and presents her results largely unprocessed for us to draw our own conclusions. Her talk, in content and in choice of topic, touched on a lot of subjects that have been on my mind for a while. In a somewhat random order:

One of the YouTtube commentators was amused by attendees not understanding the content of one of the talks, but actually this is, IMO, perfectly OK and touches on the subjects of authenticity and authentication. When we look for a teacher / scholar we want the transmitted knowlege to be authentic, and we want the teacher / scholar to be someone we can respect. One of the ways we judge that, ISTM, is by the breadth of their knowledge, how deeply they themselves seem to understand it, and how clearly and well they can explain it. Often we may not understand the content ourselves, but we know it is good stuff :-). This validates our choice of teacher. The relationship between sheikh and student in Western Islamic circles is an important topic.

But what strikes me mainly when watching this presentation is the topic itself and the thought processes behind it. Also, for those of us finding the talk interesting, what does that say about us? Sister Walaa has “gone meta”, she has stepped back from the content of digesting Islamic knowledge, to how we go about finding that knowledge, how we address our spiritual needs here in the West. How do we fill the voids that we find within ourselves? She has stepped back and introduced a level of abstraction and distance to provide a space to assess how successful that process has been. This is a double-edged sword, because to conduct this kind of external analysis admits that some truth is to be found _outside_ the inner circle, thereby undermining one of the premisses of the inner circle itself. (ISTM).

So, I’m calling her meta card (though I suspect it was played more by her supervisor than herself) and raising her another meta :-). I’m reminded of a recent talk by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf where he refers to the faith of “old ladies”, meaning a simple, immediate, deep and unquestioning (in a good way) belief. Once we raise our gaze beyond that simple belief we open ourselves to a spectrum of other ideas, and we need to somehow locate ourselves on that spectrum, to our own satisfaction. This is a balancing act! I feel that the well known scholars are doing this balancing act themselves, but they do not disclose their thought processes to the general public as that would present difficulties to many people. We catch shadows of their thinking in some of their almost off-the-cuff remarks.

For some time now I believe that for the sake of the next generation of muslims, our children and potential converts, we need to offer a way to navigate these challenging thought processes without simply leaving everything unspoken. Mmmm..


Ploughing on with this a little further, I believe that the intellectual process and development that we go through across our lives undergoes a natural and in fact inevitable evolution through learning more detail, lived experience, abstraction and extracting patterns to the things that we see. Actually for me I now see the process of forming mental models of our experiences and the “worlds” we live in as something that is actually universal in the way we think about things, and for me this is a critical insight because, I believe, it affects everything we think and it applies to all of us.

Because of this automatic and unconscious mental process of forming models and abstractions to aid us in understanding the world and predicting future outcomes, the siting of our mental selves within multiple somewhat competing and overlapping models is unavoidable. When we first really engage with Islam we have a necessarily simple view of it, because we don’t yet know that much. Maybe we think it’s all about “Quran and Sunna”, or following an almost all-knowing sheikh. We know Iman is so important but we mistakenly tie it into having a simple and uncritical belief, uncritical in the sense that we are prepared to overlook cognitive dissonances that come up, and indeed actively avoid them so as to avoid the fallout. This is exaggerated in the current muslim intellectual milieu because an uncritical belief is often demanded by our parents or those in a position of intellectual authority in the Islamic world. If you step out of that very particular world view then you lose social authority and capital. Actually, this is as much as feature as a bug, but still should be recognised and admitted. For many people, and this is in many ways a good thing, an uncritical acceptance of a particular sheikh, for instance, is a benefit, and spares them from confronting the messy details of the hairier corners of some parts of the intellectual world that their label ties them to. However, for some, like me, it is not enough.

The good news is though that we can always turn to Allah, alHamdulillah. Through my own experience I think we can and should recognise the validity, reality and competing nature of many different mental models within our mind, but we place tawheed and the unity of Allah, avoidance of shirk etc., as our #1 model. I place the traditional Islamic view and regulations as a vital, primal and governing model, but understand that aspects come from the world views, experiences and mental models of scholars from other places and times. I recognise that my life has its own unique demands that no-one else has ever faced, and the same applies to everyone else. I think this is a _better_ foundation of belief because it is more resilient for me, and also provides a way forward for those in an environment less amenable to the traditional way of life (let’s say). We can allow people to live on the spectrum between simple montheism and the “Complete” Islamic life, moving ISA in the right direction but not cutting out people who are further away.

As I said in my previous comment, to acknowledge an abstraction and external mental model about a system of thoughts is to simultaneously draw authority away from the foundations of that belief, because we are granting the possiblity of finding more fundamental truth outside of it. This is dangerous when it comes to religious thinking! However, what I am saying is that rather than place our trust in certain people, groups or books we place our trust in Allah more directly and centrally and build out from there, with more peripheral models being allowed to have doubt applied to them without it spoiling the fruits that they are offering.

In fact I believe that most of humanity instinctively view things in the way I have described, but when we associate with a particular group we get sucked into saying that certain things MUST be done like this, said this like. This makes dealing with people outside the group very hard, and there is no need for that. We can be kind and generous in spirit to everyone. Hence we see a certain harshness coming from our group, but warmth coming from people of no affiliation at all!

I really do believe that this approach is closer to the prophetic example than the way Islam is usually and traditionally presented as a kind of academic subject.