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Middle People hear Echoes

I recently received an email asking me what the purpose was of my writings and how I felt these helped the Muslims in Britain and the Ummah more broadly. The writer’s scepticism is not unique to him alone. Indeed many people (Muslim and non-Muslim) regard theoretical musings as sheer bombast and unnecessarily complicated. I am reminded of something Professor Stuart Hall said at a lecture in which he spoke about Race as a floating signifier and a discursive construct and rhetorically asked, what is the purpose of all this scholarly hullabaloo?1 Hullabaloo it might be, and indeed in some ways merely a pretence to an occupation (not to mention an occupational hazard!) but my position is clear, as is his, there is enormous worth in pursuing such a mode of activity, for that is indeed how I view it. Though in popular imagination academia is merely an elitist talking shop, where absent minded professors and socially inept doctors discuss endlessly amongst themselves the minutest details of some obscure theory or historic detail, I think we need to look again at the manner in which theory and activism may be linked. To work against the seeming discontinuity between these two categories I want to employ two key metaphors – the ‘middle people’ and the ‘echo’ – to explain how changes in the Ummah and society may be brought about.

Like many others involved in academia, I begin with ideas as the core foundation of a sociology of change although writers like David Bornstein regard this as a typically topsy-turvy academic typology. Instead, for Bornstein the focus ought to be on ‘a particular type of actor who propels social change’.2 He or she is an entrepreneur, characterized by Bornstein as relentless and never taking ‘no’ for an answer. As such Bornstein is more on the side of action than theory. For him, the way to understand change is to locate human agency amidst the landscape of institutions and ideas, with the former as the energy and driving force for actuating social progress. What Bornstein seems to overlook, and one of the key reasons why the discontinuity between theory and activism exists is because popular imagination sees the human subject as always already constituted. For Bornstein entrepreneurs are born, they are people who exist as one variety amongst the diversity of human beings. Although Bornstein does not dismiss the possibility of training and creating entrepreneurs, the key task for him is to ‘build a framework of social and economic support to multiply the number and the effectiveness of the world’s social entrepreneurs’.3 As such, activity and theory seem to be distinctively drawn apart with the former seen as the business of those characterized as ‘go-getters’, and the latter as the business of quiet reflective individuals, often content with spinning grand theories whose relation to ‘reality’ is interesting and enlightening but whose usability is at times tenuous. Such a position is similar to the idea of hitting a ball; one does not need to theorise how to hit a ball, one merely ‘hits’ it. But the problem, I suggest, is twofold. Firstly, human subjects in all their diversity are not always already given; they are themselves formed by the narratives, discourses, and ideas that create human subjects. So if there are entrepreneurs out there in the ‘real’ world, they are there because at some point growing up they were inspired by ideas conveyed by someone – school teachers, authors, parents. Even where one may claim the existence of an individual simply moved to action seeing poor conditions around them, my contention would be with the notion of the ‘simply’, since there exists within almost all known societies influential narratives about helping, cooperation, competition, betterment, advancements, improvements, experimentation, such that the moment of ‘realisation’ for our hypothetical individual could not but be inside ideative processes contingent upon already existing ideas/discourses/narratives. Secondly, action and thought are interrelated so that what we call activism and theory needs actually to be seen and practiced as mutually linked. Hence, a dismissal of theory from the realm of activism is misguided, while theory that does not concern itself with the world encountered ‘out there’ is indeed a lot of hot air.

Is that then the end of it? Yes and no. Yes, because for me theory is like the planning before a battle, while activism is the actual battle. That, were the issue merely this, would indeed be the end of it since almost all Muslims, I think, can appreciate such a typology at a time when they have an overwhelming sense of being under siege. The reason it is not the end is because I suspect the discontinuity between theory and activism also exists because of theoretical discourses’ tendency to use language that seems designed to alienate, intimidate, and bewilder the average reader. Whether this is part of its design or merely an unintentional result, it is sadly true of a lot theory. For this reason I want to propose a way of understanding my work and that of many others, as well as one of the functional tasks of websites like www.islam21c.com and www.khayal.info.

As opposed to thinking of a hierarchical pyramid, which is the dominant (and often resented) image regarding academia and theory – that is, that it comes down from on top – I suggest thinking of a web like structure, which I am going to call the ‘middle people system’. In a healthy and active community or society there is a constant traffic of ideas; for example, scientist à government à national curriculum boards à science teachers à students. Other threads can go from mothers à researchers à product designers à manufacturers à consumers. In a denser sense, ideas that may be difficult for some may prove for others (owing to their training) easier to grasp; they then will convey these in their writings to others, who in turn will in other modes (discussions/lectures/stories) convey them to others, ad infinitum. In the ‘middle people system’ though, no one person or group ought, necessarily, remain fixed. That same person for whom a certain idea proved easier to grasp may, for some other topic or speciality, need others to act as ‘middle people’ in order to comprehend information. To understand the movement of information in this way we must also see each other as continuously in flux and involved with each other dialogically. Obvious though this may seem, it does contain a more radical proposition. As well as appreciating each other as ‘middle people’ for varying chains of ideational transmission, we must also appreciate the fact there are innumerous sites of knowledge production and that therefore we must value the knowledge produced outside universities, scientific institutions, governments etc. Sunita Narain makes this point for India for example, when she says that environmentalist in the subcontinent would do well by going and learning from villages on how they are preserving resources like water rather than mapping or merely tweaking notions formulated in LSE and Harvard.4 To see then individuals and communities as potential sources of knowledge is also part of the middle people system. Hence, the toughness of theoretical language and the hierarchical imagery that often determines our response to theory ought to be re-imagined and websites like www.islam21c.com and www.khayal.info seen as part of a web in which ideas are on the move.

Personally then, I write so as to move the ideas with which I have come into contact and forward them as potentially interesting for what they suggest about the world and how they contribute to strategising change. As such, others and I are part of an echo – my second metaphor – whereby we pick up ideas and theorise tactics for individual and social transformation. It is the job of readers to engage as well as they can the ideas laid out in individual pieces and join the echo effect by carrying them forward still, till perhaps they reach individuals/groups who utilise them in the actual “battle”/in some form of activism. For the echo to be stronger and louder we need

1. More writers.
2. More talk and discussion about the ideas presented in different texts and their usefulness/adaptability for social change.
3. More students to tailor what they have learnt and present it for the benefit of social activism.
4. Lectures in which speakers actively engage with ideas found in certain texts; quoting them directly, referencing them, and encouraging their listeners to read and interact with a text, debating its value with friends.
5. Organisations like FOSIS, LondonIsoc, Islamic Societies, MCB and other social activist bodies taking into consideration ideas and thoughts explored in different texts.

The ‘middle people system’ hopefully mitigates the tendency in popular imagination to see theory as the monopoly of a few and therefore the dismissal of theory as a counterpoint to the elitism of such a view. The echo in turn presents itself as a methodological understanding of the role of writings that are theoretical and ideational and of the way in which they ought to function – not as isolated instances of some sort of (if ever) “genius” but as something to be tussled with and propelled forward. The impasse therefore between activism and theory is somewhat bridged, and I, hopefully, vindicated for what I do, hullabaloo though it may be.




Source: www.islam21c.com

1. See, Stuart Hall, ‘Race: The Floating Signifier’, http://youtube.com/watch?v=bMo2uiRAf30 (accessed on 04 Jul. 08).
2. David Bornstein, How to change the world, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p1.
3. Ibid, p3.
4. See, Sunita Narain, ‘Developing with Sustainability’, http://youtube.com/watch?v=HLEJ_vq6zMM, (accessed on 04 Jul. 08).

About Syed Haider

A PhD candidate at SOAS and English teacher.


  1. My headache has gone at last!!
    The first time I read one of brother Syed’s article I got a headache and didn’t understand what he was going on about. I thought he was just trying to be a “pompus old fart”

    Now I see brother Syed’s articles as very interesting and some what challenging. I still get headaches sometimes but I like the challenge. Keep up the good work.

    wa salaam

  2. I agree with the idea that we (the masses who don’t understand) should be the ones to change and develop ourselves instead of the other way around. While I do see the point that to attempt to simplify the article might help it reach a wider audience, this may be difficult for Syed to do due to his academic training. It’s possible that he’s forgotten how to think “simple” 😛
    This brings us to the question of how; how can we reach a higher level of understanding or intellectuality? I’m sure the answer would be to read more, but are there particular books Syed recommends?

  3. Fatima Barkatulla

    By the way, I should have explained myself better…I didn’t mean what I said in the Black and White sense in which it came across…insha Allah if I have time, will discuss. V. busy.

    Otherwise, main point was, accessibility. May Allah guide all of us and help you with your work which is for His sake.

  4. out of everything there is goodness
    can i second the comment by wanderer…I just want 2 be able to grasp the ideas that brother Syed is discussing. It would be wonderful for people like Syed to go through all these theories (which I agree can be as beneficial as reading the works of scholars) and be ‘middle people’ for us. To explain them in a simple and easy way so that we understand. This is what the scholars do, they don’t explain every technical detail to us rather they simplify and relate the matters to that which the people can comprehend. Is there any point in giving knowledge that does not benefit? How can it benefit when the people do not even understand?

    BTW I also think it’s good that there has been this discussion amongst every1, Alhumdulillah as long as people are respectful(!)Ws

  5. Fatima Barkatulla

    Faseeh means eloquent and it also means clear…fasaaha is clarity too, not overcomplication.

  6. Much ado about nothing!
    Having spent the last 20 minutes reading the comments section alone, I’ve realised this discussion is much ado about nothing!

    If everyone just looks as this retrospectively, all that’s being requested is for the language to be simplified a little, so as to ensure a wider audience remain engaged and understand the essence of the article. This does not necessarily mean the writings need to be ‘dumbed’ down significantly, but rather, as Sr. Fatima alluded, simply explaining foreign terms and concepts will dramatically increase the readership of the article in my opinion.

    Also, am I the only one who sees the irony that to refute the notion that “academia is elitist drivel”, the above article is produced, which in all honesty, many people won’t fully digest? This, in my opinion, will only reinforce this notion in the mind of the person who sent the email to Syed in the first place! The above article contains key concepts which I wholeheartedly agree with, the metaphors of the “middle people” and “echo” are fascinating and I can understand their contribution and impact in social activism. However, I do feel that many will not have truly understood the message, and as such, will see this as another example of elitest drivel.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love reading Syed’s writings (or when I understand them at least…let’s not go down that road again!), not because of the eloquence of his words, but rather I truly believe Syed to be a unique individual (may Allah preserve him) with fascinating thoughts relating to the process of bringing about change through the dissemination of ideas and, as Syed would put it, “shaping the discourse and narrative” – which by the way I wholeheartedly agree is becoming alot more prevalent on the tongues of many Muslims nowadays mashAllah.

  7. an addition
    Something I missed to comment on sister Fatimah, it took me as some surprise after reading your beautiful words on your blog:

    ‘I was reflecting with a fellow student of Sheikh Haitham’s, how, through studying with him and even through having regular phone discussions, we learn so much aadab from him Ma sha Allah. Aside from the sciences of Islam that he is teaching us, he continuously makes us think deeper, further, ‘looking at the bigger picture’ as he calls it. He makes me conscious of the repercussions of my words and actions as a person working in Da’wah, how it may be appropriate to say one thing to one person, but not to others. He makes us analyse the situation here in the West and learn the subtleties of how to do da’wah. I think the term for it is ‘wisdom’ – he teaches us wisdom.’

    that you criticised Syed’s work. Inevitably looking at the ‘bigger picture’ is to understand da’wah in a Western context and not to simply it to learning fiqhul tahaarah etc. Additionally, it can be only from the subtleties of da’wah that our da’wah be simplified for the lay people and advanced (both in theory and literary) for those capable of a deeper understanding. Having said that, great blog; May Allah reward you.

  8. still musing
    Alhamdulillah, the ummah has awaken and has began to answer the rally cry, but does it really benefit us to leave off some topics because they may be a bit advanced for some Muslims? What about those Muslims that ARE advanced (or those who DO read articles like Syed’s and enjoy his literary level)? Should they sit and wait for the whole ummah to catch up? – something which may never happen. Its a bit like the tablighi argument, that we should continue to focus on da’wah to Muslims until all practice and then turn our attention to non-muslims,but the question is will that ever happen? Allahu a’alam. The truth is that nowhere are we given in the shari’ah, or the sunnah for that matter, a general principle of leaving off aspects of scholarship because the laity are ‘lay’.

    I agree with sis Fatimah where she prefers to learn from those who are well grounded in shari’ah, as this a preference of most I’m sure, but the problem is that this isn’t the case most of the time. Many a time I have personally found that many individuals with a strong knowledge of shari’ah are either not very grounded in academia or shun it due to their lack of understanding. For example, I recently met a Madinah grad who began to complain about the Western Muslim psyche and our approach to everything being philosophical. Although I agree that many Western Muslims (especially highly educated ones) feel an urge to constantly philosophise aspects of their religion, philosophy is not all bad. The word ‘philosophy’ is used in many different contexts and although from a point of aqidah we are forbidden to philosophise creedal points, Islam at times does encourage certain TYPES of philosophy. For example, the maqaasid of shari’ah has commonly been translated as ‘the philosophy of Islamic law’. It was from this Madinah grad’s (of course not are all the same) ignorance of the use of the word philosophy that stemmed his contempt for any usage of the word.

    Many a time we hold the view that if we discuss any Islamic or Muslim matter, then Suyuti, ibn Hajar, Ibn Taymiyyah etc names should crop up somewhere. However, I believe that as we become more established in the West, we will come across many aspects of the deen from a fiqhi point of view where classical scholars have not commented due to the unique nature of our situation. Does that mean, as I said before, that we should close our books, put down our pens (our turn off our computers) because the academia that we address is not ‘true ilm’. Sis Fatimah’s usage of that term has left me quite perplexed in the sense that if academia is not ‘true’ ilm (knowledge), is it fake? And the fact that the Islamic mode of learning incorporates everything, can we truly leave out Syed’s contributions?

    I agree that Syed’s work is sometimes difficult to digest, but thats MY weakness. Never in the history of Arabic literature did people criticise someone’s work for its high literary level, but instead the use of balagah and different asaaleeb (modes/methods) which would often make a piece of work difficult to understand was praised due to the writers abilities – to this extent the prophet was known as the afsah (most faseeh) of Arabs, although he could also converse perfectly with the most ignorant of bedouins!

    Similarly, Syed’s work is also ‘faseeh’, and may Allah increase him in his eloquence, and though many may find his work difficult to read, it is up to US and not HIM to understand his work. In my experience, I ahve met many highly educated middle class individuals who would thrive on Syed’s literary work’s, and appreciate Syed’s osloob, so what for them?

    I agree with WM that most Muslims are still in need of understanding the fiqh of salah and istinja and major points of aqidah, so maybe Syed’s work isn’t for them as he discusses da’wah – a thing they should stay away from until they have reached a certain level.

    I would like to make clear that I am not speaking of any particular persons (before I get rushed!)but commenting about the prevalent views in the British Muslim community. I apologise in advance for any offense if I am rude, but if an individual doesn’t like what I have written either please refute me or think deeply about your probs with my words.

    May Allah rectify our affairs, grant us ikhlaas and istiqaamah, and make us of the inhabitants of paradise.


  9. a musing
    Firstly, sis Fatimah, I apologise if my comments seem rude, I probably got a bit passionate about the topic, but not my intention. As for hiding behind a kunya, it is not ‘hiding’ per se for if I were to use my full name you still wouldn’t know me (due to my unimportance), much less anybody else! My contempt is for individuals who criticise or rubbish others either due to their own inabilities or ignorance – especially when Muslims say to other Muslims that their advanced abilities are no good because people need to learn how to pray properly first or study the fiqh of istinja (not claiming you said that). Most of my comments were not targeted at you, but the general readers, I only used your comments and that of Ummi’s as example’s (not to single you two out).

    My personal problem is that I feel that Muslims are extremely myopic in their understanding of the deen, its ability to bring about change in ANY situation, and the way in which Islamic scholarship is belittled to mustalah hadith and certain points of aqidah. The true matter of the fact is that the ‘awam (comman man) need not delve into the finer points of hadith classification (something reserved for the muhaditheen) nor into the depths of aqidah (and refutations) – but if they do seeking the pleasure of Allah, may He reward them.

    The key point here is that scholarship is vast, and for an individual to focus on one specific thing is quite alright. No doubt such an individual should study fiqh (and its usool), aqidah, tafsir etc, but one does not need to be a scholar of Islamic sciences to discuss theories of social change and its relation to da’wah. Certainly, any individual attempting to discuss da’wah in a new light should confer with scholars (which is the case with S.Haider) if not one him/herself in order to maintain a stance in conformity with the qur’an and sunnah, but is s/he limited? Of course not. Similarly, when was the last time a medical student was told to study the fiqh of medicine and maqaasid of shari’ah before graduating and practicing medicine?

  10. Goodness me, will this never end?
    I had thought that I wouldn’t make any more comments, but I’m afraid I am rather disturbed by what you have written sister Fatima. I have immense respect for you as a writer, I think a lot of the work you are doing through your blog is wonderful and I have marked it in my “favourites” folder 🙂 However, you seem to understand what I have to say and then somehow, loose it again.

    1) True Ilm is of the Deen – no doubt, but ilm is also present in the world. Discovering the world, and nature in particular, is a wonderful way of drawing closer to Allah who is Al-Khaliq and who is Al-Aleem (the all knowledgeable) for whom knowledge is not merely of Himself but of EVERYTHING and hence, to have an understanding of [some of] those things (human psychology, social processes, volcanicity, electricity, farming, Animal welfare, history) is to have knowledge also, since they form some part of the compendium of “Knowledge”. I understand that the “type” of knowledge is distinct – meaning Allah’s knowledge of these things and of all the other things is significantly different, and I am not claiming knowledge of that sort (n’audhu’billah).

    2) Who denies grassroots dawah and activism? Social activism IS (almost always) grassroots, my point is, everyone involved in activism considers at times how best to carry out their work and that kind of thinking is, nominally, theoretical (and then put into practice). My point about theory is more meta-theoretical than the kind aforementioned. I am thinking along the lines of cohering the da’wah on a larger scale – chains of ideational transmission, systematic echoing of certain phrases and words. Only yesterday I was speaking to a friend – whom I haven’t seen for a long time – and he started to use words like ‘narrative’ (context: media and forwarding our own narratives); others have used words like ‘intellectual colonisation’, ‘affecting society’s framework of perception’ – this is what I am talking about, cohering the way we talk, conceptualise, and to a certain degree “see” issues is important for a more coherent voice to emanate from Ahlul Sunnah in the realms of politics and culture. This isn’t novel, we fumbled our way in this manner before, when in the early days of (quote-un-quote) Salafi da’wah, words such as ‘taqlid’ and ‘tawheed’ were marked firmly on the da’wah scene. Today we face challenges from the outside in a way that wasn’t there 10-15 years ago. My work is addressing some of these challenges, as is Sheikh Haitham’s work regarding “Britishness”, “Fiqh of Minorities” etc. We need to be much more holistic. Your approval of the ‘traditional Islamic model’ should direct you to appreciating a much more holistic approach to knowledge.

    2) The Prophet also strategised – lets not forget that. Going to Tai’f was also, remember, a strategic move on the part of the Prophet (saw). Hence to strategise (meta or micro) is important to enhance the efficacy of one’s efforts.

    3) Politicians are affected by academics – see, ‘The Intellectual Challenge of Dawah…’ part one chapter 3. As far as Imam’s are concerned, and for that matter anyone else, then the issue surely is of making them see themselves and each other as part of the ‘middle people system’ and to instil in them the concept of the echo, which can only happen if more people read and transmit what they have read in their own way (you for instance have a blog and a particular writing style; understand the ideas herein presented and elsewhere and reformulate them in your own way to push them forward even more).

    What we have presently is a very patchy and all over the place da’wah scene; with disparate bodies; little interaction/communication between the different bands; little reinforcement of ideas (resulting in articles/essays/papers standing alone and in a state of potentiality but never moving beyond the website or book wherein they are found, because the notion of an ECHO is almost absent from the minds of du’at) etc.

    When we have Muslims phoning into radio shows etc. expressing ajeeb notions of the place of Islam in the West (eg. those who phoned into a program on the Asian Network where Sheikh Haitham was discussing issues about Shariah Courts) you realise that for these Muslims there is a lack of an holistic Islamic conceptual framework within which to tackle such issues. For many practicing Muslim, a similar problem persists. They have perhaps an Islamic conceptual framework (though how holistic it is I’m not sure) but lack a nuanced and non-Islamic vocabulary by which to interact and convey an Islamic viewpoint without getting tongue tied by the host or other speakers.

    Do engage with what I have said and let me know if you agree or disagree. In the end I humbly concede that none is Greater than Allah and that He is Al-Noor, the Light who guides.

  11. Fatima Barkatulla

    …having said that…academia is not true ‘Ilm and many of the greatest scholars of sciences in Muslim history were first and foremost well-versed in their knowledge of the Deen. The traditional Islamic model of learning was the best because it didn’t seperate Islamic studies from ‘other’ studies.

    The Prophet sallallahu alaihi wa sallam appealed to and mobilised the poor and the lower classes and engaged in grass-roots da’wah to bring about change as did other revolutionaries throughout history…

    For there to be real change, the Imams have to be affected and the politicians too…how much are they influenced by academics? I am more willing to learn from someone who is well grounded in Shari’ah as well as studying other academic subjects
    Anyhow I will think about it more insha Allah.

    By the way Abu Ibrahim, you shouldn’t be so rude in the way you discuss things and be a bit more formal. Hiding behind a Kunya seems to make people feel bolder…

  12. Fatima Barkatulla

    Assalamu Alaikum
    I do get it. Alhamdulillah…now that I’ve read it again, slowly. Maybe I was reading it when I was too sleepy and it seemed like too much to get through, so I apologise for that. Your explaining above helped, maybe you could incorporate a little more explanation in the same way you did in the comments above, into your article. Sorry if I offended anyone. Jazakallahu Khairan.

    And it makes sense, ideas do filter through and perhaps your musings could bring about change…yes Abu Ibrahim is right but what I meant was making your writing more accessible to more people because I thought this website was aimed at Muslims of all levels.

    I can’t wait to do a PhD, but only to accomplish something beneficial for the Deen. Insha Allah one day I hope to. Make du’a for me…

  13. Did you even read the article! 😉
    * Yes, WM, you are wrong that the metaphor places me ‘above’ “them”… read the article!

    * Alhumdulillah, I have always been supported by my friends and beyond: brothers and scholars/people of knowledge whom I have not met but who have read the work appreciate it, and I appreciate their words of support IMMENSLY (may Allah grant them success in this world and the hereafter, AMEEN).

    * The point of us becoming conversant with the likes of Hobbes and Foucault is so as to critique ideology (your favoured occupation, I believe (see above)). And who says that one cannot learn about both (Islam and this ‘other’ kind of knowledge). Indeed, to learn of Islam as much as one needs to be able to implement it in ones life is the requirement of all Muslims, and that I’m afraid is not made impossible by reading Foucault or Hobbes – I’m sorry to say, it’s nonsense to suggest otherwise. If your argument is, why are we not prioritising learning the even finer details of the deen, then (a) there’s no reason why we can’t, and (b) why must everyone meld into some kind of homogeny? Even amongst our scholars/people of knowledge individuals specialise; Mohar Ali for instance took it upon himself to tackle the fitna of the Orientalists, as a result of which I am certain he read Edward Said (I know this is not strictly speaking the Orientalism Mohar Ali was concerned with, but as a theoretical critique of the history of the practice of scholarship about the East, it WAS relevant to his interests). I’m afraid you’re out in the cold on this one.

    * My point in fact is precisely that to moor the knowledge gained by reading x, y, and z, toward social activism, which helps the da’wah and the Muslims here, is not ‘wasting time’ at all. Take a brother or sister who is studying Economics. If they can (and I encourage this when I have spoken at Isoc events) relate what they learn toward the Muslim context in Britain (and beyond) then they are making so much more of their knowledge and learning. So, to not feel like your wasting time, try directing your ‘learning’ to better the Muslim condition, intellectually and practically (through direct activism/”battle” (re: the article)).

    * And now with the advent of the Sabeel courses, Al-Kautur, Ibn Jabal, MRDF, it is merely a case of enrolling on these and completing courses to keep up our Islamic learning. It is merely an excuse (the worst type) to claim that x is keeping me from learning about Islam; one of our prayers should always be to grant baraka in our time and to give us the tawfiq to keep learning.

    * I respect those who actually ‘do’ something and not merely grouse, since the latter are the real time wasters.

  14. btw Who exactly are these ‘middle people’ anyway? Am I wrong in assuming that this topographical metaphor places you ‘above’ them? 😀

  15. Strategic essentialism, hmmm?
    Anyway- do you ever feel that what you’re doing is a waste of time (or do others ever give you the impression they think that way)?

    After all, what is the point in us becoming conversant with Hobbes, Foucault or whatever if we don’t even know the fiqh of istinja? And I am saying this as someone who would like to continue doing what I do (often ambivalent as I am)…I just feel worthless, under-appreciated all the time 🙁

    But I have way more respect for ulema, and for those who learn about their deen in general (which includes Sr. Fatima)- at least they can say (insha Allah) that their time has been used well…

  16. If you can’t be asked to get into the art debate just read the last 2 paragraphs!
    Firstly, WM, what do you mean by, “Yes, but Modernist Art (I contend) was better-elaborated (i.e. more), theoretically, than stuffy 19th Century stuff”? 19th century was the age of the Romantics, the Pre-Raphelites, of Impressionism and Realism; writers as different as Eugene De Lacoix, Plekhanov, and Wilde had a great deal to say on matters of art.

    Secondly, I never denied that it was ‘even more self-consciously elitist/exclusivistic!’ – I merely pointed out that when in fact the modernist wished to break from the stuffiness of 19th century art culture, the one thing they maintained was its snobbery – a rather odd sort of rebellion I think. Given that they wanted to express a new consciousness, it seems they only wished to alter the decoration rather than to do away with or replace the edifice of nineteenth century customs and conventions. This sweeping generalisation is of course inaccurate when placed against specifics, but I’m only concerned with scorning their ajeeb gestation of rebellion! 🙂

    And I think you are right to point out the danger, but it is not inevitable that one should fall into error insha’Allah. One should stick close to Ahulul Sunnah and to consult in this open way many people’s perspectives so as to keep oneself in check. Furthermore, the ‘use’ of such theories to further ones own theoretical positions is merely strategic, meaning, that if to push a certain theory to its end will spell danger, we acknowledge that “such a theory and I can only go so far”, and that “at a certain point, it and I will have to part ways”. For examples, Kant’s proposition of a synthesis between a priori concepts and sense perception is entirely agreeable, but he concludes from it that to conceive of that for which there is no sense perception (eg. Allah) is rationally impossible, hence his concession that one cannot prove nor disprove God’s existence ‘rationally’. At this point I disagree and move away from Kant. Unlike RELIGION/DEEN in which picking and choosing is not the modus operandi, I think in all other areas it is possible, in fact, perhaps even something to be encouraged?

    Now, to pre-empt you I’m afraid, lets not here get into matters of Kantian philosophy or any other non-article related issue, and bore everyone else to tears…

  17. Yes, but Modernist Art (I contend) was better-elaborated (i.e. more), theoretically, than stuffy 19th Century stuff, and even more self-consciously elitist/exclusivistic! Yes, there’s that unified whole again…even in cases where the intention was to limit authorial artifice, the result was more impenetrable than ever!

    What we need is ideology critique. We can’t challenge, contest or refute without questioning what certain notions are premised on, and for me that involves some indebtedness to Marxism, post-Modernism etc.

    But I wonder if you aren’t playing with fire; after all, these ideas were developed (to some extent) to combat institutions, practices etc that I often sympathise with, and that *we* sympathise with, as Muslims. The danger is that our approval (of these methods) won’t be qualified (enough), that we will fall into error…there are too many Abu Zayds, Arkouns etc in the world. Surely our fight is as much with them as it is with non-Muslims (I don’t intend a ‘violent’ fight here)…

  18. Was it too…inappropriate?

  19. Response to Sister Fatima
    Dear Sister,

    your blog is wonderfully erudite, may Allah grant you and your family success in this life and the hereafter, ameen.

    Your not dumb of course but I’m afraid you have missed something. This short essay was written to explain the worth of theory IN social change/activism (which for me is almost synonymous with da’wah). As such it is a systematic way of appreciating how everyone and all kinds of articles/essays/papers may be part of a network that helps substantiate and achieve change; that is all. So for example, your blog may well function as one important cog in the ideational transmission by re-presenting aspects of something you have read by Sheikh Haitham or Brother Nizami on this website – some sister may read your blog and may speak to other sisters about it, meanwhile, a brother may pick up something you have written following your reading of that same article (by br. Nizami for example) and make it part of his khutba. As such the echo is strengthened and several people have engaged with and become part of the ‘middle people system’. The more we encourage each other to write, read, discuss, and express, the more likely it is that ideas (‘like many involved in academia I begin with ideas as the core foundation for a sociology of change…’) will move about and affect individuals.

    Now, the ideas can be numerous – from issues of raising each other’s eman (like encouraging sisters to phone each other and invite one another for tea) to the importance of narrativity as a mode of resistance. Some ideas will capture some people more than others but each is as important as any other in the jigsaw of da’wah.

    Hence my essays/articles are abstract because they are about theorising/strategising change in a more systematic way. Perhaps it is misguided, but overall, those who understand my work are really its target audience, though that is not to say that one ought not to try to make the work more accessible, but in the end, if in order to make it more accessible one has to loose something of its (albeit complex) detail, that is a compromise I am unsure about.

    As for your comment, dear sister, about reading newspapers (I already do!), which would you have me read. As my GCSE and A’ level students illustrate, even writing for the ‘masses’ (itself a problematic term) is not quite so straightforward. Those who read tabloids find broadsheet newspapers dry, verbose, and sometimes, unintelligible. I’m afraid I do draw the line here 🙂 I am not writing in a journalistic way vecause I am not interested in relaying the details of current affairs but more interested in the background impulses of ideology, discourse, and narratives, as well as the historical and philosophical underpinnings of the outside world, that, though it pains me to say it, may indeed be the realm of a select few. But it was precisely to open up the realm of theory and its invaluable insights that I wanted to propose the ‘middle people system’ as already existing (in part) and needing (in part) to be actualised.

  20. I’m not a straight A student, so am I?
    With all respect sister, what a lame argument! The fact that most Muslims are jaahil or even faasiqs has nothing to do with Syed’s essay. Syed has not written an essay, the purpose of which is to give ‘grassroots da’wah’, instead, he is exploring, and if I may say, defending the position of theoretical (and of course academic) musings while trying to convey an understanding of its importance. What you are calling for and what he has written are two different things.

    A major argument that is used by many people when academia is taken to a high level is that Muslims are weak, ignorant, sinful etc (none of which I dispute). However, what these same people fail to keep in mind is that at the same time there ARE practicing Muslims who adhere to their deen while seeking knowledge of it constantly. These are the people who must stand as flag bearers for Muslims, and while I’m not saying that they should not be involved in grassroot projects, a holistic understanding of the deen must be incorporated. For example, while the prophet lived in Madinah he ventured on many expeditions to repel the kuffaar (disbelievers), and never once was the excuse made against fighting that there were munaafiqs and those of weak faith amongst the believers. In the past, the Muslims had a beautiful way of implementing the deen holisiticly, to the extent that they would implement as much as they could in their given situation, and this indeed is from the fundamentals of shari’ah – that we implement as much as possible.

    To illustrate further, scholars have constantly furthered their insight and knowledge into jurisprudence, exegesis, hadith studies etc, and the fact that weak Muslims existed amongst them did not hinder them teaching the fiqh of ahaadith (or its mustalah), the tafsir of the Qur’an, the maqaasid of shari’ah etc. Of course, to sit in one of these lessons, one was expected to have knowledge and learning capabilities to a certain degree – a bit similar to Syed’s work 🙂

    I sincerely believe that Syed’s work has been misunderstood (maybe I’ve misunderstood it! lol) in the sense that it is not a journalistic article but an academic one. Instead of newspapers, why not try something more in the same field such as academic journals on sociological topics? The fact is that Syed’s work is specialised, and although it has been displayed by islam21 for the masses, it is up to the masses to choose what they read. If we were to give up on Syed’s abilities, we might as well call to disband orgs such as MRDF which seeks (for some part) to promote abilities such as Syed’s.

    I personally believe that Syed should continue with his work in the same fashion,and although I respect sis Fatima’s argument, I think its really nice that Muslims can now enter with their da’wah into academic circles – From where we can echo…….echo……..echo…….ech……..ec…….e………………..

  21. Don’t you get it?
    Sr. Fatima, don’t you get it? The brother isn’t proselytising…this article is what’s known in the trade as intellectual m___________. Our brother seems to have a refractory period of one to two weeks.

    You aren’t dumb; this article just presupposes a particular *kind* of education in its readers. It’s the author’s way of seeking validation- he has to alienate the ‘swinish mulititude’ or he’ll feel that something’s wrong.


  22. Fatima Barkatulla

    I think you should read more newspaper articles and see how journalists present ideas to the masses. See how they break down a subject which the reader may know nothing about and make them at least feel as though they know about it by the end of the article…

    because otherwise I think you’ll probably lose everyone by the end of the first paragraph.

    Look…it’s a lot simpler than that….most Muslims don’t even pray….their Eaman is that low! We need to get them on the first rung of the ladder and then from there other things will happen. How do we get them on the first rung of the ladder? Using the Prophet’s methodology of Da’wah….first things first…keep it simple…no amount of theoretical musing is going to motivate a person to get off their backsides and start living the purpose of their lives…or have I totally misunderstood? I don’t know. I still don’t really know what the point was…and I was a straight A student so I can’t be dumb…

  23. I ain’t afraid of no Woolf
    Oh dear, not Virginia Woolf! Her essay is full of terrible nineteenth century snobbery, ironic since her work is thought of as modernist – breaking the stuffy conventions of 19th century literary culture… Anyway, to assume highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow, is to assume essences, a devilishly difficult task in art. No, no, no, such a label game will not do! I suspect there’s some merit in the philosophical underpinnings of postmodernist art (the likes of Koon and Warhol) – although I must confess I find them utterly lifeless and uninspiring. I’m also afraid, WM, I will have to deconstruct your final claim about knowledge, since as a statement it assumes a unified and coherent object (namely, knowledge), which I’m sure you’re aware, is not unproblematic…

    ps. I didn’t say ‘floating signifier’ or ‘discursive construct’ it was Hall – take it up with him 😉

  24. assalamu-alaykum I thought I should add that I’ve read this article again and it’s starting to make some sense..! But I still think it could be made easier, Alhumdulillah. Jazakallahu khayrun for your efforts.

  25. Talk about ignorance
    Although I understand that people may find it frustrating that they do not fully understand Syed’s work, I am quite shocked that they are actually complaining, but then again, this typifies the problem amongst Muslims in contemporary Britain. Just because one finds an article difficult to read or its understanding hard to grasp, it does not mean that the article itself (or the author) is at fault. Either the reader has to humbly accept that such academia is beyond such readers, or improve one’s language skills in order to be able to understand Syed’s writings.

    Similarly, sister Fatimah complained about not understanding ‘speacialist terms’. If she feels the she needs background reading, maybe she should do some background reading. At the end of the day, Syed is coming from an academic sociological perspective, so inevitably he will use sociological terms.

    It seems from comments and convo’s with brothers that many people have a problem because THEY do not understand Syed’s work. That is not his fault but ours. The problem with Muslims is rather than step up, they’d rathers others stepped downand I think such an ignorant mentality is very dangerous to our progression.

    I sincerely apologise for anyone who takes offence. My use of the comment as examples were just that, examples.
    To be more specific, take Ummi’s comments, ‘.altho it is neccessary 2 have people in all levels sometimes i feel that the method used in some of the articles in this website are far too ‘intellectual”, which in itself is contradictory. If we need people in all levels, why is ummi complaining about intellectual articles? Additionally, ummi says ‘I always think of our beloved Prophet (PBUH) who was able to convey knowledge and understanding to all people’ – exactly, and he did not speak to all people the same, so what is the point being made about Syed’s articles? They shouldn’t be written? Then what about ‘to convey knowledge and understanding to ALL people’?

  26. Just say race is socially constructed! It makes more sense 😉

    Interesting that you write of ‘middle people’…a true ivory tower academic holds them in contempt (lol- just read Virginia Wool’s essay ‘Middle-Brow’)!

    I think knowledge loses a lot in its popularisation…

  27. my theoretical response!
    As’salaam’alaykum wa Rehmatullahi wa Burkathu,

    ‘Race as a floating signifier’ = Race is not fixed in its meaning.
    ‘A discursive construct’ = All attempts to ground race in scientific, biological, or genetic grounds has been refuted. Therefore, we must acknowledge race as something constructed by society in the way it talks and writes (discourse) about race.

    The point of using Stuart Hall, however, was merely his own admission of bewilderment that many people experience with theory, encapsulated in his use of the word “hullabaloo”.

    I understand that there can often be frustration and a desire to simply leave something because it is/appears impenetrable – try reading Derrida, or worse, Gayatri Spivak on Derrida! But that is precisely the point. The works on websites like islam21c are not Derrida or Spivak; it is in many ways a watered-down version of their (and others’) insights orientated toward Muslim concerns. Someone may ask why it is necessary to speak of these people at all (Bornstein as an example), and why give value to any theory?

    *Firstly, you reference people not as examples of genius, but for the insight they provide to social phenomenon. If their insights are not useful for Muslims, we could/should overlook them for the purposes of the articles/papers written for this website.
    * Secondly, theory is necessary because when moored with activism, it is not merely descriptive but processaul, meaning it provides a way of carrying out activity in a way that will, it is hoped, increase its effectiveness.
    * Thirdly, it is wrong to assume that theory is somehow non-activist, or that activism is without theory. It is not as if a leaflet (to paraphrase Homi Bhabha who is another theorist – apologies in advance!) involved in the organisation of a strike is outside theory, while a speculative article about ideology is some kind of ‘pure’ theory. ‘The difference between them is in their operational qualities. The leaflet has a specific…organizational purpose, temporally bound to the event; the theory of ideology makes its contribution to those embedded political ideas and principles that inform the right to strike.’
    * Fourthly, theory should be seen as a practice that makes available in the process of articulation the object of activism – poverty, racism/Islamaphobia.
    * And, finally, theoretical texts help piece together the vocabulary and conceptual framework, which behave as the backdrop against which we make decisions, make priorities, and in the end, commit to certain actions.

    It is this way of appreciating the connection between theory and practice that is important to grasp. The da’wah of the prophet (saw) was beautiful in its ability to affect the most simple of Bedouins to the most sophisticated townsmen; I totally agree. However, he was also a strategist working to better spread the message and it is that capacity, encapsulated in him individually (with the Ultimate aid of Allah, of course) that I am arguing needs to be transposed today, not in ONE individual but in between and within a patchwork of numerous strategically theorised texts that help us tackle the challenges of our contemporary context – appropriate to our present and true to our past. This involves the echo moving between scholars, sociologists, teachers, medical professionals, social activists/workers (on the ground), and the lay individuals whose perspectives can also echo around (through this type of messaging system) and inform scholars, sociologists, medical professionals etc, etc. For this echo to be strong everyone needs to behave and engage as if they are ‘middle people’. We need forums such as these to be popularised and promoted. And if, as Ummi says, people are not doing enough to be ‘middle people’, well we all need to start promoting the notion of the ‘middle people system’ either by becoming part of it, or pushing it out there as a concept by which to organise and “see” our role in SOCIAL CHANGE. This can happen through Isocs, in our Khutbas, in lectures, in articles, amongst friends, through more formal organisations and who knows, a host of other ways I haven’t even thought of!

    Now, lastly, the dictionary jibe! lol! Don’t worry, no offence taken.

    I have no idea why I write the way I do – my academic training no doubt. Believe it or not, I am very conscious when I am writing of trying to avoid jargon as much as I can, or to write in a way that is more straightforward, going back and deleting words, rephrasing something, adding a footnote here or there… Khair, it is in some ways a shortcoming, but again in the ‘middle people system’ this can be rectified by someone who understands the droll that I am spewing and reformulates it to make it available for others; Allahu’Allam.


    A tired and out of touch academic (!) 🙂

  28. Fatima Barkatulla

    By the way…I apologise if my comment above sounds less than respectful…that wasn’t my intention…JazakAllahu Khairan for your efforts. The comment was just to encourage you to make things a bit more straightforward-seeming.

  29. Fatima Barkatulla

    Assalamu Alaikum brother

    Maybe the person who was emailing you was frustrated as I sometimes feel, that we need a dictionary to understand some of your articles. I mean what does ‘Race as a floating signifier’ actually mean? And what does ‘discursive construct’ mean? Many of the terms you use in your articles are very specialist terms which a person who has no background in studying what you are studying will not understand. Also…when you introduce people like David Bornstein who is not someone the average reader will know, then you should give a brief intro to who that person is and what their significance is or the reader just thinks “Who cares what Bornstein says”.

    The trick is to make articles comprehensible to people who have no background in the subject you are discussing…otherwise you may just sound like an out of touch academic.

  30. Sheikh Scoobawee

  31. assalamu-alaykum,
    interesting…altho it is neccessary 2 have people in all levels sometimes i feel that the method used in some of the articles in this website are far too ‘intellectual’ and i wonder how much people are doing to be ‘middle people’ and ‘echos’. I always think of our beloved Prophet (PBUH) who was able to convey knowledge and understanding to all people. Thinkers, writers etc need to engage audience of varying levels by showing intelligence and articulation without alienating people and making them feel they’ve ‘missed’ something or that they have to attend a whole course on ‘semantics’ or something to ‘get it’.
    but maybe I’m not intellectual or educated enuff 2 read da stuff on ‘ere…!
    🙂 Wassalam

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