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Making A Case for Islamic Existentialism

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  • mary.jo11
    Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs And the
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 26, 2007
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      Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
      Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass
      One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
      And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls *

      There has never been enough rain or oceans to dilute—sand or dirt
      sufficient to absorb—nor adequate wind to blow—away the bloody
      history of man on this planet. While the dream of simple comfort
      slips away for many, the demigods of consumption and corruption and a
      global host of demagogues continue to lie and slaughter their way
      into a new century. False patriots and prophets alike, worthless
      shepherds all, are once again revealed as the hypocrites they are.
      Sadly, a significant number of Americans make an enemy of every man,
      woman and child in countries where police actions, undeclared wars,
      strategic occupations, and other unclear objectives occur. The lazy
      racists among us don't want to see humanity in the people they
      profess to assist and liberate. They're not able to distinguish
      significant or subtle differences but prefer to group together Muslim
      Arabs, Persians and a multiplicity of Middle Eastern and Central
      Asian ethnic groups. This only discourages productive dialog for
      promoting democratic ideals. And obviously it doesn't bode well
      either that heads of state and terrorists alike are striving to
      acquire nuclear weapons in possibly the world's most unstable region.

      What do Americans know about the people, culture and traditions of
      Afghanistan and Pakistan? Do we even want to comprehend the immense
      suffering of their most vulnerable citizens over the past three
      decades? It's certainly more pleasant to escape into solipsism or
      retreat into the quantum theory of observer-participation, electing
      to perceive our own version of the universe, to slip into
      isolationism. Americans are abandoning their philosophical legacy of
      richly contemplating genuine freedom, responsibility and the
      promotion of authentic democracy.

      "At a time when France was perpetrating acts of great violence
      against the inhabitants of its colonies in North Africa and
      Indochina, Albert Camus wrote, 'I wish that I lived in a country
      where it was possible to love justice and still love my country.' The
      poet Adrienne Rich once defined a patriot as someone who 'struggles
      for the soul of her country.'"[1]

      I've recently read A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner, best-
      selling novels by Khaled Hosseini[2], and Three Cups of Tea[3], the
      true story of Greg Mortenson[4]. I also watched two documentaries:
      Afghan Stories[5] from producers Taran Davies and Walied Osman, and
      Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain[6] produced for
      PBS by Unity Productions Foundation. Taken together I've never
      experienced a more humbling, educational, or gratifying time with any
      books or films. I highly recommend all of these in order to dispel
      any doubt, apathy or unintentional stereotyping one might harbor.

      To greatly oversimplify, The Kite Runner primarily tells the story of
      two childhood friends in the specifically male culture and traditions
      of Afghanistan. A Thousand Splendid Suns focuses on an initially
      reluctant friendship between two women and portrayed through the
      unique challenges of patriarchy. Both stories are situated in a span
      of about thirty years, roughly covering the period prior to the
      Soviet invasion and the aftermath of September 11th, 2001. A
      masterful story-teller and former internist, Khaled Hosseini­ has
      received the Humanitarian Award from the United Nations Refugee
      Agency and been named a U.S. Goodwill Envoy.

      Three Cups of Tea is the true story of American military veteran and
      mountain climber, Greg Mortenson, who became a builder of schools,
      women's health centers, and provider of other essential services in
      Pakistan, Afghanistan and other neighboring countries. He's the
      founder of the Central Asia Institute[7] which among other things,
      provides simple treasures like pencils and notebooks to mountain
      communities, many of which don't even have written languages. He
      began his humble NGO with restrictive funding and nearly
      insurmountable obstacles, including fatwas issued and over-ruled,
      short-lived imprisonment and interrogations by both the U.S. and
      Taliban. Greg Mortenson was once offered $2 million by a Pentagon
      official to build schools alongside the all-male extremist madrasahs
      to counter the effect of terrorist recruitment. He respectfully
      declined since knowledge of the source funding would have led to his
      certain death. And while some U.S. government agencies are charged
      with wasting billions of dollars, Mortenson has achieved phenomenal
      success.

      Afghan Stories opened my eyes to the differences and tensions among
      Afghans and includes interviews with royal family members in America,
      doctor and journalist émigrés in Tajikistan, and mountain rebels who
      briefly detained the film's production crew and their guides, I was
      surprised to learn than some Afghan-Americans were so appalled over
      the September 11th attacks they wanted to nuke their homeland!
      Opinions about the future of Afghanistan is as varied as any other
      national discussion but was mainly polarized as to whether Afghan
      immigrants should return or wait until there is more stability.

      Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain ambitiously
      covers seven centuries using "feature-film-style re-enactments,
      footage of great Islamic architecture, scenes of Spain's beautiful
      landscapes and analysis by world-class historians and scholars to
      tell a story of vital importance for the contemporary world - a story
      about the triumphs and achievements of diverse cultures co-existing
      and thriving and about the tragedy that ensues when religious
      extremism begins to rise. The history of Islamic Spain told in Cities
      of Light demonstrates that when religious diversity is accommodated
      within a social and political system, problems and tensions may still
      exist, but society is able to successfully manage them, generally to
      the benefit of all. But when governing powers and religious movements
      reject complexity and insist on a single cultural and religiously
      centered point of view, society is likely to come to grief, often
      terrible grief, with widespread loss for everyone." (PBS promotional
      piece)

      These humanitarian-artists are practical visionaries who eschew
      political and religious debate in order to educate and relieve
      unnecessary suffering. In this atmosphere of deepening humility and
      tolerance, or maybe because of it, an idea occurs to me: Might this
      not be a time for the renascence of existentialism? Could this be the
      perfect opportunity for Islamic Existentialism?

      Some view the two major divisions of existentialism to be theistic
      and atheistic. Very briefly, existentialism is a broadly defined
      philosophy which posits that we can never know universal meaning,
      nature, reality, self, or others absolutely. This creates anxiety,
      and the individual must develop their own essence within this
      existence into which we've been thrown. Nevertheless the
      existentialist highly values this terror of freedom and
      responsibility.

      Aside from the seminal works of Søren Kierkegaard and Frederick
      Nietzsche, existentialism as a more formal philosophical movement,
      with a corpus of arts and literature, didn't substantially begin
      until WWII, spurred in great part by the horrors of the war,
      specifically the Holocaust and the silence of god. What typically
      inspires existential thought is contemplation of generations of war,
      genocide, and unmitigated suffering. It leads sane people to reject
      an indifferent god. People might respond to this 'death' of god in a
      number of ways: with more violence or outright anarchy; Buddhist
      tolerance or indifference; agnosticism; or outright atheism. Jean-
      Paul Sartre adroitly defended atheistic existentialism as a humanism
      against the charge that it encourages evil. He argued that one
      doesn't need god to be ethical or moral.

      From The Existential Primer:

      "Existential theology is a recognition that real faith and spiritual
      meaning cannot be found in organized religions, rituals, or texts.
      Adhering to religious rules, even those called "laws" within a
      religion, is not a sign of true faith. Existential theology demands
      that faith be individual. Because most people are born into a
      religion, they do not have a faith so much as a sense of community
      identity. The religion is a way to connect to other people, not a way
      to connect directly to the metaphysical. This does not mean that
      every person born into a religion lacks faith, but few people are
      genuinely spiritual.

      For Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and even Nietzsche, the Christian
      churches of nineteenth-century Europe were not aligned with the
      teachings of Christ. Only the individual willing to question and
      challenge the churches could appreciate how far from the teachings
      and example of Jesus the churches had strayed. This was nothing new.
      Geoffrey Chaucer had mocked the clergy several hundred years earlier.
      What was potentially new was the existential description of faith.

      The following individuals are key figures in modern theological
      discussions of existentialism: Karl Barth, Martin Buber (Jewish),
      Gabriel Marcel, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. [8]

      For Kierkegaard, there is a moment when the believer realizes that
      faith is not reasonable, logical, or scientific...a surrender to
      something beyond what can be known. Theological existentialism tends
      to view faith in the following light:

      Faith is a personal experience that can never be fully explained to
      others;
      Faith requires sacrifices emotionally and socially;
      Faith is usually damaged by religious organizations;
      Faith is preceded by doubt and a quest for answers.

      None of these concepts is alien to religion, but the theological
      existentialists see the alienation as far from extreme than previous
      philosophers. True faith is so apart from a group understanding that
      it can only be damaged if the believer entrusts his or her
      spirituality to an organized church. Even explaining faith reduces
      its purity, to some degree, but it is important to be authentic and
      honest about believing."[9]

      There actually are a few historical examples of what might be termed
      Islamic proto-existentialism: the Cities of Light; certain forms of
      Sufism; and of course, poetry. It's very probable there are more
      examples than these, since we westerners are generally ignorant of
      historic trends within Islam. While many Jews and Christians were
      contemplating the absurdity of formulaic faith in a dearth of
      explanation for the horrors of a half-century's evils, most inflicted
      in the names of greed and creed, the Muslim world was largely spared
      contemporary existential angst and substantial revision. But just as
      Christianity and Judaism were ripe for existential crisis, Islam now
      appears poised.

      Apart from any academic movement or public dialog, it's fairly safe
      to assume that many individual Muslims nevertheless have private
      existential moments. There are instances in everyone's life when
      dogma and emotion fail to impart significant meaning or guide us to
      reasonable choices. They may not be overt life-or-death decisions,
      but simply based in the conflict between self-preservation and
      authenticity versus established traditions. Myriad ambiguities can
      assault previously held absolutes. Existential moments are brutally
      honest, solitary moments in specific situations when you must decide
      in a vacuum of certainty. But in the anguish of choice lies dignity
      and empathy, the knowledge that others must also choose. The
      literature and documentaries cited herein are exemplary examples of
      such situations. These authors and filmmakers are everyday heroes who
      help create more of the same.

      For centuries the people of Central Asia, particularly those
      geopolitically designated by the British as inhabiting either
      Afghanistan or Pakistan, have endured alternating cycles of fierce
      isolation or foreign dominance. But these regions are actually
      populated and delineated along various tribal affiliations with
      several different languages within various Islamic sects. They
      welcome basic human services but not everything else that normally
      travels on the coattails of democracy and capitalism. When Khaled
      Hosseini and Greg Mortenson speak before audiences of readers or
      philanthropists, they emphasize that Afghan and Pakistani people must
      be allowed to request what they need for their own people. One can't
      praise enough their desire to educate the young women which
      immediately improves the life of their communities. Relief workers
      need to be respectful, accommodating, non-arbitrary, and certainly
      environmentally responsible.

      The efficacy and spread of existentialism has been retarded in the
      West due to a long, expensive Cold War. Now that we've concluded
      there is no one ideal or perfect economic system, perhaps
      existentialism can awake from its torpor. Existentialism is not
      simply agnosticism or even the nihilism it is often mistaken for.
      Rather it's a future-orientated philosophy and a practical cultural
      adjustment which encourages individual approaches and solutions.

      * excerpt from "Kabul" by Saib-e-Tabrizi, trans. from Farsi by Dr.
      Josephine Davis
      http://www.afghan-network.net/Culture/kabul_poem.html

      [1] Preston M. Browning, Jr
      http://www.crosscurrents.org/Browning0404.htm

      [2] Khaled Hosseini
      http://www.khaledhosseini.com

      [3]Three Cups of Tea
      http://www.threecupsoftea.com/Intro.php

      [4]Greg Mortenson
      http://www.gregmortenson.com/welcome.php

      [5]Afghan Stories
      http://www.afghanstories.com/afghanStories.html

      [6]Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain
      http://pressroom.pbs.org/documents/cities_of_light_rls.doc

      [7]Central Asia Institute
      http://www.ikat.org/about.html

      [8] Baruch Spinoza can be added to these
      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/#3.1

      [9] The Existential Primer by C. S. Wyatt, Doctoral Candidate, Dept.
      of Rhetoric, University of Minnesota
      http://www.tameri.com/csw/exist/


      ADDITIONAL SUGGESTED READING

      Sufism
      http://muslim-canada.org/sufi/sufism.htm

      Existentialism and Poetry
      http://eteraz.wordpress.com/2007/05/18/islamic-existentialism/

      Iranian Islam and the Faustian Bargain of Western Modernity
      http://web.syr.edu/~mborouje/jpr.html

      Restoring Kabul's Lost Beauty
      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/5262142.stm

      Billions In Aid Wasted In Afghanistan?
      http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/09/18/eveningnews/main3272694.shtm
      l

      Come Back to Afghanistan
      http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/18/books/review/18rich.html

      Afghanistan: Heroin Producer to the World
      http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/drugs/heroin-afghanistan.html

      Poppy Fields Are Now a Front Line in Afghan War
      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/16/world/asia/16drugs.html?
      _r=2&hp&oref=slogin&oref=slogin
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