A Book Review of Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions by Abdal Hakim Murad
Storytelling – that’s not the future. The future, I’m afraid, is flashes and impulses. – Dexter Palmer
With this quotation does Abdal Hakim Murad open his book, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions, a collection of one hundred scattered contentions, namely, short phrases and declarations that can indeed most aptly be described as poignant “flashes and impulses.” Each contention is followed with commentary that ranges in length from one sentence to a few pages. Dr. Murad, when speaking about his work, admits that when reflecting on some of his contentions, he has little idea of what they truly mean. Such an admission, however, does not detract from the profundity of his contentions; instead, they join a long tradition of art (yes, good writing is art) that is left for the reader himself to interpret, internalize, and perhaps even actualize into his life. Dr. Murad’s contentions blend references to historical events, other religions/faith traditions, famous pieces of art, classical literature, and of course, the Islamic tradition. He masterfully includes wordplay (although himself calls some of the rhyming phrases silly), as his book proves that the best-written works are elevated to such a caliber not only because of the ideas they express therein, but the manner in which they do so. Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions is not a book that can be understood in one reading; rather it necessitates both careful rereading and thoughtful reflection—both about the world and about one’s self. His words demand to be marinated in one’s mind, as many of the contentions he presents are less affirmations of intrinsically and naturally known truths about the world at large or one’s self, but more puzzles that require knowledge of a multitude of disciplines. As such, Dr. Murad both continues the long line of classical philosophers who were well-versed not only in philosophy, but theology, art, medicine, politics, etc. as well, and deviates from many current puritanical faith leaders who demonstrate mastery of specific theological fields, but lack both the interest and ability of weaving different sources of knowledge into their work.
His insistence that modernity is what informs our condition and that we must reckon with it, not reflexively reject analysis of it, is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his work. In short essays, Dr. Murad not only effectively diagnoses many of the diseases of the modern condition, but also presents solutions for them from the Islamic tradition. He emphasizes that “Islam began as a rejection of the Self in favour of the Other: the monotheistic principle was the narrative of the neighbor. Islam began as history’s “greatest act of xenophilia” (20), a reality that eludes the minds of many modern Muslims who plead for acceptance into a system that was neither designed by nor for them. Defiance of such a system of capitalism, self-indulgence, and Godlessness (all features of what Dr. Murad calls the monoculture) in favor of full submission to Allah ﷺ alone is what Dr. Murad stresses, reminding us that “it is not the vocation of Islam [thus, by extension, Muslims] to conform to the age” (171). He alternates between lessons on the inward and private realities of spiritual purification, stating, “The road to God is paved with laughter at the self. The road to hell is paved with laughter at others.” (88) and “Learn that you are the merest shadow in Another’s act; thus will you learn humbleness, which is the beginning of understanding” (91) and outward realities of using Islam as a public affair, stating, “In the fight against the Monoculture, the main sign is the hijab, and the main act is the Prayer” (171) and “Modernity: an accelerating attempt to shove matter into the growing hole where religion used to be” (16).
While he sometimes reiterates principles and maxims that scholars before him have established, his doing so is refreshing because of his eloquent brevity and tactful incorporation of things not explicitly within the Islamic tradition. For example, while hundreds of Muslim scholars have decried and disavowed the actions of hardline groups like the Taliban and ISIS, Dr. Murad uniquely compares them to groups like Buddhists, asking “Who were more anti-Western: the Taliban, or the Buddhas of Bamiyan?” (58), a question that not only cleverly incorporates rhyme, but also indicts the Taliban (among other such hardliners) as truly modernist groups: deviant from the Islamic tradition in their propagation of the monoculture and counterproductive attempts to spread tawhid (the Oneness of God) by, among other things, destroying the sacred sites of other religious communities, an approach aberrant from the Muslim tradition (an argument previously discussed on Traversing Tradition here).
Abdal Hakim Murad both in this specific work and in any number of lectures and writings placates the anxieties modern Muslims, especially young ones living in non-Muslim lands, feel about differentiating between religion and culture. While cries to demarcate religion and culture as two mutually exclusive entities grow in volume, Dr. Murad demonstrates how the beauty of Islam is in its ability to provide unity in a lack of uniformity. Such a lack of uniformity exists, in obviously theological and popularly defended matters like the existence of four distinct, but equally valid madhahib (legal schools of thought), and in less internalized matters like the reality that Arab culture is not in of itself Muslim culture, declaring “Arabdom is not congenital” and “the Qur’an is in Arabic, but the DNA of Islam is not Arab” (20). He unapologetically embraces his native British identity, referencing classic English characters like Lewis Carroll, Gilbert and Sullivan, Edward Lear, Professor Branestawm and Basil Fawlty (80). In doing so, he affirms that Allah ﷺ created us into different cultures and colors so that we may find comfort in our differences, learning from each other, and actualizing what Allah ﷺ Himself has said: “O mankind, indeed We have…made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another” (49:13). The reality that local customs and cultures have historically informed Sharia (Islamic Law) is first: an affirmation of the validity of multiculturalism in Islam and second: a direct threat to a hegemonic global monoculture that strives to “not only abolish other cultures, [but] gradually abolish culture itself” (172).
Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions is a brilliant work that I would recommend to all readers, regardless of their familiarity with Islam, modernity, history, sociopolitics, etc. While most, including myself and by his admission, even Dr. Murad himself, will not understand the full, original intended meaning of each contention, reading his book is a good exercise in evaluating both oneself and the world at large. Naturally, as one increases in knowledge both of the religion and of the world, Dr. Murad’s eclectic puzzles become easier to solve and internalize. He forces readers to not only observe the modern world, but to engage with it, to ask questions about it and demand answers from it, and to allow our tradition, not only the Islamic one, but that of all of humanity, to inform our interactions with one another, the world around us, and with God.
About the author: Eeman is the co-founder of More Than 10,000, an organization that advocates for Syrian refugees. Her interests include Hanafi jurisprudence, neuroscience, health and human rights, and the food industry. She is also the editor and site admin of this blog. You can follow her on Twitter here.