Saturday, March 08, 2008

BOOK: Travelling through Muslim minds ...

Riaz Hassan is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Flinders University in South Australia. You can find out more detail about his 4 decades of academic work here.

I'm in the process of reading his most recent book Inside Muslim Minds which I'll be reviewing for The Australian. That book is a continuation of his 2002 work Faithlines: Muslim Conceptions of Islam and Society.

The importance of work by sociologists and anthropologists of Muslim societies cannot be underestimated. It's one thing to talk about what one's preferred version of Islamic orthodoxy teaches. It's another to be able to definitively state how Muslims actually live out their faith.

So often we hear self-appointed religious leaders pretending to know what Muslims think and believe and do. We also hear self-appointed experts make similar claims, often with a view to projecting the most negatively monolithic (or should that be monolithically negative?) image of Muslim reality.

How do we rebut such claims? By talking to Muslims themselves and finding out the facts. And being prepared for some results that might make us feel somewhat uncomfortable.

Certainly my eyebrows have been raised a few times as I've ploughed through the first few chapters of Hassan's book. Questions raised in my mind include: Was his sample big enough? Has he considered the possibility that Muslims in different parts of the world may apply different connotations to the same concept?

For instance, Muslims from different parts of the world view the term sharia differently. For what they're worth, here are a few lines from something I wrote elsewhere in the context of the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent pronouncement on the subject ...

Different Muslim cultures understand sharia in different ways.

For instance, Indonesians tend to associate sharia with non-interest banking and ethical investments. In South Asia, where the common law has incorporated sharia codes in family law and inheritance, Muslims view sharia in these terms. Hence, it will be almost impossible to find any consensus among Australian Muslims as to exactly what sharia is.

Social research has its limitations. But this should not detract from nits importance. Those of us with some interest in building bridges across the broad Western and Muslim worlds should know how people in different parts of these world sectors view themselves and each other.

Riaz Hassan's book is useful because it gives us at least some idea of how many Muslims in various parts of the world approach both personal and social aspects of their faith. We need to know this information for at least two reasons.

Firstly, we need empirical evidence to answer the speculations of cultural warriors from all sides. But more importantly, if we are committed to social and spiritual reform in Muslim majority states, we need to understand where the objects of reform are now located. You cannot take a community with you toward a better path if you don't know on which path they are presently travelling.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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