Thursday, March 01, 2007

Of narratives and definitions

I hear many contemporary Muslims use the term "Traditionalist" to define themselves vis-a-vis other Muslim groups as someone who follows closely to the Islamic tradition, rather than modern re-formist movements (note the hyphen). But this is problematic because of the varied nature of our collective experiences and accumulated social narratives that help to define the values and visions of our society in the way we view the past and look to the future.

While Muslim-Americans may claim to be traditional and therefore opposed to the modern phenomenon of terrorism such as suicide bombings and other militaristic ideologies that facilitate the flames of hatred and thus violence, we must also remember that Americans of the dominant culture view tradition as something very questionable and therefore filled with many positives but fraught with many negatives. And this is important. Because we as humans have subjectively different narratives and interpretations of events in our lives and those that occurred before us, we thus have different narratives that help define the terms of discourse. As a Muslim associates the term traditional with positive things in Muslim history such as golden ages and sages, someone of another faith might associate very negative things with tradition such as the US legacy of slavery and racism. This is important to note because when two individuals enter into a discourse or dialectic, they need a lingua franca that allows for the terms of discussion to be the same therefore allowing the individuals involved to have a discussion that is substantive and helps bring understanding, rather than an argument about semantics that leads both sides to believe that dialogue is not an open highway but a cul-de-sac.

Generally speaking this is important because I think a lot of problems involved with bringing people to the table for discussion revolve around semantics issues that are never addressed. Never addressing the foundations of discussion stymies personal and societal growth. For example, many discussions surrounding terrorism never get very far because the discussion never realizes its potenitial of being an exposition of similar values including the sanctity of life and the need for security for all to a bickering match about who's a terrorist and who's not.

So when people speak negatively about traditionalism, we shouldn't see it as an attack on traditional Islam, but on the tradition they hold in their minds.


Danya said...

I completely agree with you.

I've given this some thought as well and as a result, around Muslims I usually use the word traditional but around non-Muslims (and some less aware Muslim) I use the term classical. Classical doesn't carry that baggage and even has some positive connotations.

jordan robinson said...

Has this term worked well academically? I'm just wondering because I know "Classical" can be a musical genre or a genre of literature and thought.