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Lecture explores Islamic binaries

| Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Kroc Institute Luce Visiting Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding SherAli Tareen delivered a lecture titled “Beyond Good Muslim/Bad Muslim: Debating the Boundaries of Innovation in Islam” on Tuesday afternoon at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies. Tareen focused on polemics over the ethical question of “bid’a,” or heretical innovation, among two major modern Muslim reform movements in South Asia: the Deobandis and Barelvis.

The lecture began with a brief overview of the two major reform movements: the Deobandis and the Barelvis. Tareen said both are Sunni groups in India and that, being so similar, it made the polemics “bitter and more caustic because they were so personal.” He elaborated on the groups and explained how the two are usually assigned to a binary with the stereotypically more law-focused Deobandis on one end and the stereotypically more peaceful and mystical Barelvis on the other.

“This kind of binary is intimately intertwined with the larger discourse of, which today is a very insidious and well-funded discourse, of what we might call the good Muslim-bad Muslim discourse,” he said. “Goodness is often measured by what is most proximate to a modern Western interpretation of what is a legitimate religion and, frankly, what is most conducive to American foreign policy at that moment in time.”

Tareen said innovation in Islam refers to changes within Islam itself.

“‘Bid’a,’ or heretical innovation, is the inverse of what is known as the normative model of the prophet, or sunna,” he said. “‘Bid’a’ consists of new, unsanctioned practices.”

To explain the differences in the Deobandi and Barelvi definitions of “bid’a,” Tareen used the definitions as defined by two Hanafi Muslim jurists and Sufi masters who were involved in the founding of both groups.

Quoting Ashraf ‘Ali Thanvi, one of the founders of the Deoband Madrasa, Tareen said, “Bid’a” is an innovated practice in religion that simulates the “sharia” in the intensity and discipline in which it is undertaken.

“In other words, such conventions were kept alive and perpetuated by the invisible pressure to societal expectations and norms, rather than to divine law and divine will,” Tareen said. He added something can be considered heretical when it’s treated as being obligatory without a historical context to back it up.

Tareen also read an extract from the writings of Ahmad Raza Khan, the founder of the Deobandi school, on “Bid’a,” which compared Islam to Muhammad’s garden which he said becomes “blanketed with breathtaking flowers, leaves and fountains, as each generation of scholars and saints added new layers of beauty to what they had inherited from their predecessors.”

“Unless a practice was forbidden in Muslim law, ‘sharia,’ that practice is permissible,” Tareen said. “In other words, the default value of practices that have not been explicitly forbidden in the ‘sharia’ was that of permissibility.”

Ultimately, Tareen said that by trying to compare the two groups within the context of a binary was harmful and fails to fully explain the traditions of each.

“Rather than approaching debates on normative practice through the lens of a law-Sufism binary, or other binaries like good Muslim-bad Muslim, liberal-conservative and so forth, it might be more productive to look at the internal logics within the tradition,” he said.

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About Megan Valley

Megan Valley was Assistant Managing Editor for The Observer. She majored in English and the Program of Liberal Studies and hailed from Flushing, Michigan.

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