One of the problems Muslim Da’ees have encountered in recent years, is the attempt of post-modernism to not only undermine the bases of Islam as truth, but also the problem of “representation” that is often flung against Muslim Da’ees to deny them any authority to speak, or to empty their words of any worth in the consideration of audiences. Admittedly this has happened in the West, and is most prevalent in academic settings, but it has increasingly been encountered in mainstream media and written critiques against Muslim speakers.
The argument is simple, any particular Muslim Da’ee, does not possess within themselves the sum total of all the physiological differences (e.g. skin tone, sex, use of legs, arms, age) that humans from a wide range of background possess, nor the same experiences (especially ones claimed to be produced by the physiological differences) or the same interpretations. Therefore, the argument goes, any Muslim Da’ee’s arguments, claims or speech can be disregarded as simply the “opinion” of that one person – or at best, the representation of the opinions of only those who look exactly the same, have experienced exactly the same life, and hold exactly the same opinions. This specious and glib argument can then be used to simply ignore everything the Da’ee says as simply “their opinion” which “doesn’t represent everyone else’s opinion”.
In fact, the post-modernist argument goes even further, it argues that for every person who calls themselves a Muslim, there is another distinct version of Islam – i.e. multiple Islams. And therefore, every person who chooses to call themselves a “Muslim”, has a “Islam” of their own (even if they’re completely ignorant on the basics of Islamic teachings) – and all “Islams” are equally valid. There is no wrong “Islam”, only multiple “Islams”.
The problem here is, like all great lies, this is based on a falsehood mixed with truth. A Muslim Da’ee calling to the existence of one God, and the Prophethood of the Prophet Muhammed (saaw), doesn’t have to be of a certain skin tone, sex, ability or age to speak the truth about these matters.
A Da’ee is an ADVOCATE for truth, not a representative for a group of people. This matters all the more when we consider that Islam is based upon scriptures, not a living collective of people’s opinions. If suddenly all Muslims decided that God doesn’t exist, that wouldn’t then become the opinion of Islam (nor would God cease to exist!), but rather they would all no longer be Muslims because their beliefs would contradict the [clear] teachings of Islamic scripture.
Likewise there is only one Islam, the differences of interpretation are only due to the fallibility and limitations of the human mind. This fallibility is impossible to prevent with 100% certainty, so in Islamic scriptures, while the verses of Quran and the Mutawatir Hadith where the Arabic text can only be interpreted one way, no Muslim holds differences of opinion on (and these form the core creeds of Islam that form the criteria of belief and being a Muslim). However, for non-obvious texts whose meaning can only be correctly understood while considering the full context of all other verses and hadith in toto, differences of opinion can arise (and are a mercy from Allah [swt] – in order to get Muslims continually debating and keeping their knowledge of Deen [Islam] and reasoning sharp throughout the centuries). Indeed, the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) taught in a hadith:
Amr ibn al-‘As reported: The Messenger of Allah, [saaw], said, “If a judge makes a ruling, striving to apply his reasoning (ijtihad) and he is correct, then he will have two rewards. If a judge makes a ruling, striving to apply his reasoning and he is mistaken, then he will have one reward.”
Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6919, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1716
If there is no such thing as one Islam, how can anyone ever make a mistake? (also notice how sincere mistakes are not viewed as rejection of belief, because the person sincerely tried to find the truth in a matter where it wasn’t obvious).
The post-modernist argument therefore is not only wrong, but frankly absurd. It would only hold any weight, if a Da’ee not only called to Islam, but also called to a particular school of thought within Islam, while claiming his opinion as the ONLY opinion – or if the Da’ee is a male and talked about what it feels like to be a woman (which being a male, the Da’ee couldn’t directly experience). But guess what? It’s not Dawah (calling to Islam) to call to a particular school of thought within Islam, nor for a male to discuss what it feels like to be a woman!
However, post-Modernist Secular Liberals (some of whom are unwitting Muslims who fell into the Western university system and were uncritically convinced by the superficially compelling theories) have managed to stifle a lot of Islamic discourse by Muslims seeking to be advocates for Islam.
Furthermore, many Right-wing (Conservatives/Neo-Conservatives) who don’t even accept post-modernism (see Culture Wars), enjoy cynically using the arguments to say that terror groups may be an extremely tiny minority of the Muslim population of the world, yet their interpretation of Islam is just as valid as the majority interpretation (which is false on two counts, not just the post-modernist point about validity, but also that terror groups don’t advance any interpretation of Islam as being their motive for terrorism – which they usually blame on Western foreign policy).
However where did post-modernist Secular Liberals get this idea from? And why do some naive Muslims in the Western university system, unwittingly accept it?
Well, in the imaginings of post-Modernism, “truth” was rejected as something that could exist outside and independent to human beings, or rather individuals. Neitzche believed “truth” was the last great anthropomorphisation of the universe. Instead, truth was divided into two new categories, objective truth, and subjective truth, with the former being denied and the latter being affirmed. In fact, to even adopt these new philosophical categorisations of truth, was to immediately deny the possibility of truth – since truth is merely a synonym for reality, what is real, by which we mean, what exists.
Nietzsche, along with Kierkegaard, helped lay a lot of the groundwork for this new reinterpretation of reality, namely, that reality is merely an interpretation – perhaps even an invention, of each individual. What was once the activity of perceiving reality became the art of molding, or rather crafting and contriving claims about reality to whatever is the whim and desire of the individual, this was no longer the perception of reality, but rather the “experiencing” of it. Thus was born the concept of ‘subjective truth’, a truth whose reality was peculiar and particular only to each individual alone, and no others. This new subjective truth, called ‘lived reality’.
Nietzsche, then famously asked the question “What do people pursue what they call truth then?”, he then concluded that the pursuit of truth (or “Will to truth”) was simply motivated by the desire to keep “reality” fixed to the advantage of those who enjoy their current circumstances (or wish to change reality into something beneficial to themselves). According to this belief, Truth is therefore only obtained by people, in order to control and dictate the “lived realities” of people, by making people adopt their “interpretation” of “truth” and controlling their “lived reality”. Therefore, in Nietzche’s estimation, the “will to truth” was simply the “will to power”.
‘In so far as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.— Perspectivism…It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm’‘There are no facts, everything is in flux, incomprehensible, elusive, what is relatively most enduring is-our opinions’The Will to Power, Nietzsche
People’s personal “opinion” was then deemed to be absolute, inviolate, infallible and co-existent with equal worth to every other individual’s ‘lived reality’. All “lived realities” were deemed valid, and no “lived reality” could contradict the “lived reality” of another.
This fundamentally changed the nature of public discourse in many Western universities and academies, where previously, people of differing positions regarding the truth (i.e. the nature of the reality) behind a thing or topic, debated and discussed observable recorded evidence in order to attempt to come to a consensus on truth, and pursue greater accuracy – now it became a circus of people each merely positing their personal experience, with no attempt permitted to be made to reconcile the diverse claims into a cohesive, unified and more accurate understanding of reality.
In this “brave new world”, people no longer propounded ideas or positions on their theories of the nature of reality, but only shared their own personal experiences. However, this came at an existent cost – namely the limitation of people’s possible fields of enquiry depending on their personal attributes. While a physicist may be permitted to talk about their ‘experience’ of the inanimate objects they study, anyone studying the subjects involving humans, like sociology, psychology, sexual reproduction, neurology, economics, art etc could not talk about human beings they didn’t share all the same attributes with. For example, an able bodied European male middle age adult, could not talk about anyone who is disabled, or non-european, or female, or elderly (or young), because he would be regarded as not having any of the attributes of people from these classifications and therefore could not provide any “lived realities” that could allow him to speak with any authority on other individuals with these attributes.
This formed the basis for a newly created concept of “representation”, namely, that in order to discuss any reality involving anyone with attributes that have been identified for social classification, the speaker must possess the attribute themselves and therefore be a ‘member’ of that group of people defined by the social classification the attribute falls under. The argument, so it goes, is that if any discussion on a topic occurs, it must require someone possessing a particular attribute relevant to a particular social classification, in order for it to be “true” that that class of people (and their subjective reality) have been “represented” in the discussion.
Like all fallacies, the argument possesses a partial but limited truth; namely, that people are ignorant about the experiences of someone who possesses a different attribute to themselves – but only where that attribute is relevant. Therefore, a biological male could not possess experience of child birth, because a male, as defined, could not possess the organ required to be pregnant and give birth.
Attributes are only useful when someone shares an anecdote of their personal experience with such an attribute (e.g. What’s it like to use a wheelchair for those with an incapacity to use their legs). However, even then, people cannot take an anecdote and generalise their personal experience onto all human beings, even those who hold the exact same attributes. For example, even identical twins who were raised together, don’t always agree with eachother, but even if they had identical beliefs – if they lived in separate addresses, had different jobs or schools, or knew different people, they could no longer assume that whatever one twin experienced, it would be exactly the same as the other.
Therefore physical attributes, or beliefs, are only relevant for someone talking about how it “feels” to have a particular physical attribute, or hold a particular belief. But this can ever only be of limited utility for knowledge.
However as speciously valid the point that only someone with an attribute or belief could know how it “feels” to possess them, it’s a half-truth that is (mis)used to obliterate and cover the fact that a person’s attributes do not change or effect truth, and that most discussions of ideas are not about the emotions (i.e. how it “feels”) and personal life experience of a person who possesses an attribute, but rather most ideas are about abstract concepts (e.g. maths, law, philosophy), or material existence (e.g physics, chemistry, biology), actions, events (politics, crime, weather), human brain (human cognition , teaching students, neurology, psychiatry) or people’s reported opinions and social trends (e.g. surveys, questionnaires, sociology) and other tangible and measurable things that can be perceived by people of any attributes as long as they all possess the faculties of the five senses, and the capacity to think.
No one can deny phenomena that can be recorded, measured and accurately reported, they only may differ on the reasons or causes behind the phenomena they observe. For example, throughout history, some people thought the sun was a disk, and others thought it was a ball, but no one (with 5 senses and able to walk outside at a distance from earth’s poles) could deny that the sun existed. It was not necessary to require people of every attribute in social classification to “experience” the sun, in order for the truth of the sun to be considered a truth (i.e. an existent thing).
This trap for Muslims can easily be avoided, simply reject any accusation or claim (by post-modernist Liberals or others) that any Muslim (or any other human being) can represent anything other than themselves. Instead, simply reiterate that Muslims are simply callers to the truth, and witnesses to it. In fact, that Quran teaches us to not to follow our “feelings” in case they lead us to error:
‘O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just’[Quran 4:135]
In fact, it is not ourselves that created the term “Muslim”, but Allah (swt) who named us that name, and indeed he has ordered us to be witnesses to the truth (not out “lived reality”):
‘It is He Who has named you Muslims, both before and in this (Revelation); that the Messenger may be a witness for you, and ye be witnesses for mankind!’[Quran 22:78]
Therefore, in conclusion, unless they are a duly elected Caliph, Muslims speaking about Islam should not call themselves representatives of Muslims, nor should they call themselves representatives of Islam (since only Prophets can perfectly represent revelation in their actions and speech). Muslims should call themselves ADVOCATES of Islam – and only that, and thereby prevent the Post-modernists (and right-wingers) from interfering and dismissing our call.