WHAT DOES ISLAM HAVE TO DO WITH METAMODERNISM?
What does Metamodernism have to do with Islam?
Plenty, I’d say, so long as we take the time to earnestly explore this interesting intersection. In this piece I’ll explore this former question, sharing some initial ideas about why it may be beneficial to incorporate Islamic material in Metamodern thinking. Beyond obvious resonances such as developmental spiritual schemes in Sufi and Shi’i mysticism, there are two major points of interest I’d like to bring to this discourse. The first is the transgressive emphasis on the particularity of the form of spiritual practice through embodied ritual and the Sharīʿa.
The second is alternative visions of deep pluralism inspired by Islamic intellectual history. These two points are connected by a particular understanding of lineage, which itself stems from an Islamic metaphysics of theophany—the actual instantiation of Divine qualities in the cosmos. Pursuing an Islamic-informed Metamodernism helps to reemphasize particular forms of spiritual practice that open to desirable connections such as coherent communities, ecological embeddedness, and more.
Any genuinely adequate and coherent metatheory or developmental scheme in our time ought to be deeply cosmopolitan, drawing from a variety of different historical lineages and cultural contexts. However thus far, it seems Western philosophies—along with material from Christian and Buddhist wisdom traditions—continue to have predominance in these discourses, with other Dharmic religions and various indigenous lineages occasionally being incorporated. Islamic wisdom is rarely ever included, often with the exception of Sufism—Islamic mysticism—though typically this is read as a universal spirituality disconnected from the religion of Islam with its legal and theological orthodoxies—a perspective unconsciously adopted from Orientalist scholarship and sadly frequently parrotted in both New Age and fundamentalist communities.
Bringing Islamic (and Islamicate) philosophy, theology, political thought, and cultural sensibilities into the broader Metamodern discourses has the possibility to further show care non-linear lines of development and clarify which features of a particular paradigm/value meme are essential, and which may be more incidental or tied to idiosyncratic features of a particular context.
One of the immediate challenges and opportunities for engaging with Islam in this arena, is the fact that intense, ritualized practice is a cornerstone of the religion as it is understood by nearly two billion individuals—with analogous features existing in other traditions such as Judaism or Confucianism.
The Sharīʿa—Islamic sacred law, regulating worldly conduct and the forms of religious practice—is indeed an integral aspect of the religion for the vast majority of believers and it is quite comprehensive in scope, dictating everything from the minutiae of hand gestures during prayers to the conditions under which divorce is permissible.
Wash Your Heel or Go to Hell:
The Phenomenology of Divine Law
A few weeks ago, I saw a clickbait YouTube video with a title along the lines of “AVOID THIS MAJOR SIN THAT MANY DON’T KNOW THEY ARE COMMITTING.” The content of the video was unpacking a ḥadīth—a report from the life of the Prophet (ﷺ)—where Muhammad chastises some of his companions for not thoroughly performing their ritual ablutions (wuḍūʾ). The major sin mentioned in the title of the video, I came to discover, is not washing the heel of the foot during this purification practice.
Upon this revelation, my modernist, rationalist sensibilities kicked in an I was immediately struck with dismay that my co-religionists find this material so compelling—with the video having well over half a million views and many supportive comments—whereas similar discussions of major sins with much more immediate ethical import are often given far less attention.
Certainly, there is a need for more sophisticated ethical reflection from an Islamic standpoint, but this material—and perhaps more so my instinctual reaction to it—forced me to reflect more deeply and really try to inhabit the perspective where the major sin of missing the heels in wuḍūʾ is self-evidently important.
From a modern (or postmodern) perspective, whether or not water reaches the heels in this ritual act seems unimportant. Under these frames, ablution may be primarily thought of as a symbolic act of cleansing oneself, so the exact physics of how and where the water touches one's body is merely incidental. What counts is the subjective sense of engaging in a meaningful symbolic activity.
On the other hand, from a genuinely traditional perspective, these priorities are flipped. What’s important is that the act is done exactly right, and while it’s a positive if one feels some sense of meaning or sacredness as a result, this is not the goal itself. What does the traditionalist have here that is lacking in the modernist approach?
One answer I came to—a provisional, non-exhaustive answer, to be sure—is that for the traditionalist, embodiment remains hyper-salient. As contemporary people, something like a shower is a very mundane and automatic part of the day. You get in, enjoy the sensation, go on autopilot to clean yourself, and then leave. Imagine instead a situation where the exact form of your activity in this context actually has ultimate significance—how you wash your hair may well be the determining factor in whether heaven or hell is your ultimate destiny.
There is, of course, a pathological form of this consciousness which is widespread in many reflexively traditionalist religious communities. Here, one develops an obsessive anxiety about aspects of life which, from an outside perspective, seem entirely inconsequential. But there is a profound form of this consciousness as well, one which is largely closed to those who are unable to inhabit the traditionalist frame, where all activity in life may be approached as sacred, oozing meaning and radiance.
In Islam, the Sharīʿa acts as a superstructure for orienting towards this perspective in all things, not by merely suggesting virtues of mindfulness and awe in the abstract, but by providing specified programs that force one to consider, for example, signing a business contract from a perspective of ultimate importance. At its best, following the Sharīʿa for Muslims is practice of cultivating an expansive ethical consciousness and inculcating a sense that all of one’s actions may have spiritual import, meaning that even the most mundane contexts present an opportunity to bring beauty and harmony into creation. In its pathological form sacred law may become a mere rote ritualism, disconnected from ethical questions or a vision of spiritual development. Or, in the worst case, a dead legalism may easily be hijacked by bad actors to exert coercive power over vulnerable populations.
Leaving these complex dynamics aside for the time, the centrality of this kind of ritual practice opens to some interesting questions. Often, there seems to be an assumption that this type of legalistic thinking is essentially of a particular developmental stage and that it is something which is discarded or sublimated as a particular community shifts towards more modern forms of consciousness. If one looks only at Christianity and Western history, this narrative seems to fit the data, but I think engagement with Islamic history will challenge this picture.
I have difficulty imagining a Metamodern Islam which does not retain a significant emphasis on the Sharīʿa and the traditional rituals of the religion. If these elements are absent, one may be left with a Islam-inspired Metamodern spiritual tradition, but it is unlikely to be something that would resonate with average Muslims, which seems to go against the thrust of the integrative vision of a Metamodern project.
Metamodern Legalism & Deep Pluralism in Islamic Intellectual History
What would Metamodern Islamic jurisprudence look like? Certainly there would be transformation here from the purely traditionalist forms of fiqh—likely featuring greater sensitivity to context and incorporating a wider range of methodologies and sources of knowlege—but the major sin of missing the heel in wuḍūʾ must remain. To discard such material on purely rational grounds is to remain stuck in a modernist framework, where utility and function are the final judges of all things. Yet sacred action is always more than what can be rationally ascertained with our limited knowledge at a given point. It’s sure a good thing, for example, that European Jews kept up their own ablution practices during the time of the black plague, even though the scientific understanding of germ theory which would give this practice a possible rational basis had not yet come on the scene.
Conversely, a Metamodern perspective would not fully foreclose rational analysis on this domain. A typical postmodern move is to simply give a naturalistic account of such phenomena and say nothing beyond asserting that the practices are simply the norms of the community in question. This has the advantage of avoiding the trap of over-universalizing which can come from typical modernist approaches, but here the danger is falling into a certain nihilism and pathological value-neutrality. Personally I would like to say more about the hyper-patriarchal instantiations of Islam in places like Afghanistan beyond just accepting the practices within that context and showing the mechanisms of power and justification at work.
A Metamodern approach would, of course, include and transcend both of these moves, synthesizing them into a coherent overarching framework. From this standpoint, one need not be afraid to make value claims or offer rational critique, but this work is seen as experimental and provisional, not something which offers final or definitive perspectives. And in fact, such an orientation has a precedent in the legal and theological pluralism seen throughout Islamic intellectual history.
Setting aside the broader religious diversity within Islam and looking just at the Sunni majority, one finds four surviving schools of jurisprudence (Madhāhib, sg: Madhhab), each with their own particular lineage and slightly different methodologies, but all of which mutually recognize one another’s legitimacy.
The sentiment behind this pluralism is one of deep humility: realizing one’s own efforts to intuit the correct understanding of sacred law in a given context may indeed fall short. As such, there must be room for alternative experiments.
However, this does not mean anything goes—indeed, the training required to become qualified as a legal authority is extensive, requiring the student to study in a particular lineage and grapple with a wide range of the traditional Islamic sciences at a very deep level. The end result is a coherent pluralism which avoids the trap of pure relativism by retaining standards of substance and clear engagement with shared material and methodologies. A similar heuristic may be helpful in many contemporary contexts where it’s desirable to exclude various kinds of bad actors and crude ideologues from communities of discourse. Here, ideological diversity can be retained since the filter is not based on some value-specific criteria.
Theophany as the Metaframe
Returning to the topic at hand, one finds a deep concern for lineage when considering both the pluralism of classical Islamic jurisprudence and the emphasis on religious practice taking very specific forms. At the ground of both of these aspects of Islamic spirituality is a particular understanding of theophany, providing a coherent metaphysical frame that justifies their instantiation.
From the perspective of Islamic theology, the most important thing about God is Unicity/Oneness. Tawḥīd is the Arabic term signifying this primordial monotheism. Yet God also has particular attributes—Goodness, Mercy, Justice, Vastness, etc.—so this is a Unity which includes rather than negates multiplicity.
One way of parsing this problem of a Deity which is simultaneously Unitary and Multifaceted is to take up a Neoplatonic emanationist cosmology—a move which the early Islamic philosophers very much explored and which remains a living tradition in Sufi and Shi’i mystical theologies. In these schemes, the pure, Unitive Divine Essence is always in occultation—impossible to become concrete and manifest in Itself, as to do so would delimit It in a way that would transgress Its intrinsic Unity. So the myriad Divine Names exist as more concrete potentialities, which are then exemplified and instantiated by particular beings—individual creatures participate in these particularizations of the Divine Nature and are given their being through this participation and in turn God becomes instantiated in the actual world through their existence. Here there is a reciprocal relationship between creature and creator, where their identities as such are only able to come into being through this relationship. All existence is theophany—a self-disclosure of the Divine.
On a practical level, the consequence of this metaphysical perspective is that mediation is always at play—God as God cannot be approached merely in the abstract, throwing oneself into some ambiguous relationship to the nebulous Transcendent. In a traditional Islamic perspective, this is the reason for revelation: God provides concrete guidance to humanity to allow for pathways that effectively mediate between our embodied human existence and Transcendent as such. The danger here, of course, is that such perspectives can degenerate into excessively narrow understandings of religious living, as if throughout the entirety of human history there has only ever been a single paradigm for upright living which connects one to the sacred, regardless of socio-historical context and personal idiosyncrasies. But this is an orientation which is quite distinct from both Islamic Neoplatonism and indeed even the thrust of the Qur’an itself.
From this theophanic perspective, the Sharīʿa serves this role of mediation—concretizing forms of ethical and spiritual living so that beauty may become manifest in our lives. As is seen clearly in the history of Islamic legal thought, this is an inherently pluralistic project, but the fact that legal rulings are indeed concrete serves an important purpose. Returning to the issue of washing the heel in ablution, one may come to see this act, from a metaphysical perspective, as offering a unique mode of connection with the Divine. Instead of being a morally neutral, material aspect of our being, the body becomes super salient as a nexus for relationship with the sacred, even through something as supposedly “mundane” as running water over the foot. By diving into the legal aspect of the religion, more and more of life can come to be seen as similar nexūs, and because this material is something handed down through robust lineages and complex scholarship, phenomenologically it has a depth and intensity that are difficult to achieve if one tries to pursue a similar project from an entirely idiosyncratic standpoint.
Ok, so what? Taking this Islamic material seriously and approaching the traditional value-meme from a vantage point that really emphasizes the include in “include and transcend,” one ends up with a Metamodernism more deeply entangled with embodied practices, spiritual lineages, and religious community than its existing manifestations. One need not, of course, convert to Islam in particular to find benefits in such a framework. An Islamically-informed Metamodernism asks what lineages you are a part of and how these holistically connect you to the sacred across myriad different domains in life. It also asks what specific forms of sacred, meaningful action you take in these different domains, and how these deepen your connection with others rather than further entrenching you in idiosyncrasies and eclecticism. But importantly it likewise asks how these lineages and practices are justified on a deep level, beyond just personal preference, without trying to forcefully universalize this material and exclude other valuable and earnest paths with their own unique features.
If I had to sum it up in brief, what an Islamic perspective can bring to Metamodern thinking and living is an incessant reminder that the transcendentals—the True, the Good, the Beautiful—are always instantiated in a particular form, and this particularity can either connect us with a deep past, coherent communities of other human beings, and our own ecological embeddedness, or it can simply drive us further down a solipsistic road where the ego-personality is the only agent in the driver’s seat dictating the form of this particularity.
I’ll close out with a brief anecdote from Michael Muhammad Knight’s recent work Sufi Deleuze, which I think nicely illustrates some of the complex entanglements one finds in Islamic history that have the potential to frustrate overly simplistic developmental thinking and help us imagine alternative assemblages of values and ideas to explore.
There was significant overlap in early Islam between proto-Sufi renunciants and proto-Sunni scholars of hadiths and the law. Early biographical dictionaries cataloging great Sufis of the past counted the pious jurist Ibn Hanbal, a foundational figure in the development of Sunni Islam, among Sufi ranks—the same Ibn Hanbal who denied the potential for esoteric openings in the Qur’an and who, from a certain reading of history, could be called the great-great-grandfather of the ideological foundation for the modern Saudi state, which adheres to the Hanbali legal and theological school bearing his name. The martyred ecstatic poet Mansur al-Hallaj, prototype for heretical Sufi passion at odds with the strictures of the law, used to spend his nights at Ibn Hanbal’s gave; after al-Hallaj’s execution, the Baghdad Hanbalis… were so outraged at his death that they apparently rioted in the streets. The Hallajian Abstract Machine and the Hanbali Abstract Machine each constructed a ‘real that is yet to come, a new type of reality’; even if those realities represent polar antitheses in modern imaginaries, their historical entanglements speak to shifting limits of the thinkable. Sufis looked to Ibn Hanbal, a paragon of so-called fundamentalism and austere legalism as an elder within their own genealogies. Al-Hallaj, a ‘drunken Sufi’ famous for allegedly calling himself by God’s name and dancing to his execution, viewed the jurist’s grave as a locus of supernatural energies and was sufficiently admired by the Hanbali ‘fundamentalists’ that they would burn down the neighborhood in his name.”