Sermon in Cape Town: #Tradition, Ethics and #Modernity

24 Jan 2017 - 17:30
Muir Street Mosque: Not the Mosque referred to in Article.



By: Professor Abdulkader Tayob

I was writing a paper on religious leaders in the city of Cape Town, for which I had chosen a Pentecostal pastor and a Muslim reformist teacher. For both of them I was looking carefully at how they navigated Islamic reformism and Pentecostalism in their lives. I was looking at how their commitment to these groups was developed, adopted and modified. It was a careful study of change and innovation in leaders and teachers who prided themselves on fidelity to the tradition.

I was almost finished with my paper and it was Friday, so I headed to a local mosque to listen to the sermon. I  was hoping that in might give me inspiration to reflect on the paper, and to finish it. It did but it was disturbing as well.

I made sure that I got there early enough so that I could listen to the whole sermon. But as I walked in I heard the preacher condemning Islamic feminists and activists who advocated equal rights for gays and lesbians.  This ad-hominem attack was not completely unexpected as there has been a growing controversy within the Muslim community in the last few weeks around a religious opinion (fatwa) that declared that Sunnis should not get married to Shiítes.  Condemnation of groups was not unusual in mosques.

Was sectarianism raising its head in the city? Was this now another attack, on a different group of people? What was sectarianism? Returning to my thesis, was it new or old?

Listening to this attack on Islamic feminists and gay and lesbian Muslims was disconcerting. But what did he say?

His main thesis was that "these people" wanted to change the rules of Islam. The rules of Islam were fixed and good for eternity, brought to humanity by inspired Prophets and Messengers. This was a complete misrepresentation of Islamic law, which was characterized by diversity and debate. But I continued to listen.

The preacher asserted that these "deviant" groups were rejecting the sayings attributed to the Prophet (hadith). By rejecting the hadith, they rejected the sunnah, he continued. I could not help but recall Fazlur Rahman's argument that there was a difference between sunnah (a norm, the way of the Prophet) and hadith (one of the sources that pointed to the sunnah). Like other modern intellectuals, Rahman had shown how the first Muslim intellectuals assumed and worked with this distinction. It was only the great jurist al-Shafií who collapsed the two. Henceforth, a sunnah  (norm) was indistinguishable from a hadith (a text).  In one stroke, al-Shafií rejected all previous approaches to the sunnah. He also rejected and banished all rational and ethical deliberations in the identification of norms. Max Weber would have said that he played a leading role in the establishment of a tradition, at the expense of flexibility.

Failing to understand the debate raised by feminists and gay activists, the preachers only managed to fan the flames of sectarianism.

I had resigned myself to listen to a misrepresentation, when the preacher took a slightly different turn. He tried to point out that without hadith, Muslims would not know how many prayers there were in a day.  There is no mention at all in the Qurán, he declared, of the times of prayer.  This was another misrepresentation. But I had by now resigned myself to listen to blanket declarations without support. Perhaps, I thought, there were part of the rhetoric of sermons.

But then an innovation came soon. He said that one needs the hadith for the "direct number" to God. God's direct number, he revealed to us, was 2-4-4-3-4. Those who reject the hadith cannot reach God as they will not have this direct number. Don't reach for your mobile phone! He was referring to the particular number of postures (rakát) in the five daily prayers. He likened a connection with God to a telephone call with a friend. But we know what happens to the telephone number of big institutions. You might only be speaking to a call centre!

He concluded his sermon by appealing to the members of his audience to love the Prophet like the fans of Man United. In their love for Man United, fans know all the players, know the clothes they wear and promote, their habits and families.  There was nothing wrong with this, he assured Man United fans in the mosque, but Muslims who claimed to love the Prophet should do something similar. Compared to Man United fans, the fans of the Prophet fall far short.

The special number to God (2-4-4-3-4) and the fan club were rhetorical strategies employed by the preacher.  They reveal that while he rejected Islamic feminists and gay and lesbian activists for changing the rules of Islam, he was himself deeply immersed in the metaphors of the modern world. He redefined what it meant to have a connection with God and the love of the Prophet. Our connection to God was like telephone call, and our community was a fan club.

Whilst deeply immersed in his modernism, the preacher railed against Islamic feminists and gay and lesbian activists. I think traditionalists appear to be the bedrock of tradition, but they are often unaware of the deep changes that they bring into their tradition. Whilst holding up against some groups identified as those who tarnish or threaten tradition, they are simultaneously making space (mostly unconsciously) for more insidious changes. An innovation that changes the way one connects with God and with the Prophet in Islam needs more careful attention, than an innovation that seeks fairness, justice and an end to inequity.

The Friday sermon in this Cape Town mosque might seem mild. But it is part of a growing sectarianism claimed in the name of tradition, in the city, country and elsewhere. It has embroiled communities and societies into interminable conflict. All the while, it conceals a radical change in the tradition, whilst claiming to be faithful to it.