Note: a revised and revamped version of this article was published in February 2019, which can be accessed here.
Tradition is a word that evokes many different responses in individuals of the modern era. It is a term that is often misappropriated, misunderstood, and misapplied. In recent years, we’ve seen a growing trend from many people: Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and even White Nationalists, who suggest that we must adhere to our traditional values in order to combat the spread of Modernity and Post-Modernity. However, what many fail to understand is that their call to tradition is a simplistic call towards either Conservatism, in the case of the religious, or towards nationalist (often racist and xenophobic) dogma, in the case of the White Nationalists. Ironically, both Conservatism and Nationalist dogma are Modernist concepts incorrectly conflated with Tradition. These reductionist conflations of Tradition distract from truly necessary discussions, by confining the discourse to political binaries: Conservatives vs Liberals, Racists vs Anti-Racists, Alt-Right vs SJW’s, and so on and so forth.
The true call to reaffirm tradition is not about being reactionary against Liberals, Leftists, and Post-Modernists, as has been framed by many misguided dogmatists of late. It is also not about rosy nostalgia for a pre-modern aesthetic, but about challenging broad and incorrect notions of tradition being backwards and a barrier to progress. It’s about analyzing the destructive unnatural elements of Modernity that largely lead to harm, hedonism, and an insufficient life experience. As a Muslim, I want to invite you to engage with the Islamic tradition, as you’ve perhaps never done before.
Adhering to Islamic tradition means to adhere to the core, unchanging values of a creed that has been revealed by God. In Islam, we derive our base values and our means of ascertaining the truth (usool) from the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (his practices and sayings). In contrast, in Modernity, our means of ascertaining truth is restricted to a faint idea of human (technological and scientific) progress and a false, unproven presumption of moral progress. In the Islamic tradition, we submit to the ultimate objective truths of God, while attempting to shape our communities and ourselves in adherence to these objective truths. Therefore, we derive “minor truths” that are relevant to several different contexts (cultures, societies, phenomena) so long as they have a basis in the usool; these “minor truths” are known as furoo’. Despite popular misconception, maintaining consistency in developing furoo’ through introspection of the usool is not a deterrent to societal, cultural, scientific, nor technological progress.
The mistake made by many of those who call for the revival of “tradition” is that they reject anything that happens to be a product of the modern era purely because it is of the modern, even if it is not inherently incompatible with tradition. This attitude is not an affirmation of tradition, but a reactionary anti-intellectualism that we must challenge before it overtakes and further taints the beauty of tradition. The rejection of modernity is not one wherein everything that is a product of modernity is rejected too because of association; it is simply a rejection of the epistemology of modernity. Traditionalism suggests that we don’t blindly adhere to the past, (Conservatism masked as traditionalism), nor do we blindly accept the developments of the future (Modernity) as objectively better.
These essential points in understanding tradition in relation to other ideologies or epistemic frameworks apply broadly; whether discussing Islam and Socialism, Islam and Feminism, Islam and Capitalism, Islam and Democracy, etc. (each of which is their own kind of ideology that still inherently adopts the epistemology of Modernity). Many things within Modernity are compatible with tradition, while some others are entirely rejected. In the pursuit of affirming Tradition in the stead of Modernity, we must recognize and realize this balance.
We now ask you to join us on this journey, as we traverse through the tradition of Islam, exploring different epistemological frameworks, while definitively seeing the beauty of Tradition, the solutions it offers to today’s crisis of truth, and its inherent malleability that has been diluted and irresponsibly rejected by detractors and self-proclaimed adherents of tradition alike. Welcome aboard.
About the author: Hossam is the co-founder of IMJ (Islamic Movement for Justice), an organization that is dedicated to reviving political Islam within the Muslim American consciousness. You can follow him on Twitter here.