Irfan Ahmad: Beyond Trump’s Notion of the “Pathetic Critic”

Ahmad, Religion as CritiqueToday we welcome a guest post from Irfan Ahmad, author of Religion as Critique:  Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace.  Professor Ahmad is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Studies in Göttingen, Germany.

In Religion as Critique, Irfan Ahmad makes the far-reaching argument that potent systems and modes for self-critique as well as critique of others are inherent in Islam–indeed, critique is integral to its fundamental tenets and practices. Challenging common views of Islam as hostile to critical thinking, Ahmad delineates thriving traditions of critique in Islamic culture, focusing in large part on South Asian traditions. Ahmad contemplates and interrogates Greek and Enlightenment notions of reason and critique, and he notes how they are invoked in relation to “others,” including Muslims. Drafting an alternative genealogy of critique in Islam, Ahmad reads religious teachings and texts, drawing on sources in Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, and English, and demonstrates how they serve as expressions of critique. Throughout, he depicts Islam as an agent, not an object, of critique.

Religion as Critique is available now in both print and e-book editions.


Beyond Trump’s Notion of the “Pathetic Critic”

In May 2017, Mr. Donald Trump delivered the first commencement address as the US President at Liberty University, Lynchburg, Virginia – founded by the Baptist pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell, and led currently by his son. Falwell was one of the first to back Trump for his Presidential bid by mobilizing his evangelical support base. Wearing a suit rather than the customary academic gown, Trump spoke to a gathering of over fifty thousand people.

To Critique Is To (Dis)assemble

Falwell Jr. applauded Trump’s rule for stacking, according to the National Public Radio, “his Cabinet with religious conservatives and what Falwell described as bombing ‘those in the Middle East who are persecuting and killing Christians.’” He continued: “I do not believe that any president in our lifetimes has done so much that has benefited the Christian community in such a short time span than Donald Trump.”

Having briefly spoken about the “barbarity” of terrorists (read Muslim), Trump focused more on attacking his opponents: “Nothing is easier or more pathetic than being a critic because they’re people that can’t get the job done (italics author’s).” Since Trump presented himself, The Guardian reported, as “a man of God”, he probably implied his own role as prophetic.

The opposition between the “pathetic critics” and the prophetic role of Trump and his supporters is at the heart of (populist) democracy, itself dualistic.  Furthermore, Trump’s quote echoed the popular notion of critique as criticism: some sort of fiery exchange of claims and counter claims, or, to invoke Raymond Williams, “fault-finding.”

Restoring it to its true meaning and outlining its comprehensive horizon, Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace instead shows that far from being easy, the task of a critic and the work of critique are indeed difficult. Ethnographically focused on Muslims in South Asia, the book’s larger premise is that critique is important to religious traditions in general.  And when properly pursued, critique is simultaneously a creative work of assemblage and dis-assemblage – assemblage in that a critic assembles things and ideas kept separated for a specific goal, and, s/he dis-assemblage in that things and ideas rendered congruent and naturalized require acts of separation-cum-differentiation.

To illustrate the mechanisms of assemblage and dis-assemblage, a critic may ask: Mr. President, in your address you said that “as long as I am your president…we will always stand up for the right of all Americans to pray to God…” but in January 2016 you stated that “We’re going to protect Christianity and…I don’t have to be politically correct” (Italics author’s). Since not every American is a Christian, does it mean you will not protect faiths of those Americans who profess religions other than Christianity? Furthermore, the phrase “to protect Christianity” implies that it is under threat. Is it true? If America is for people of all faiths, does it not follow that the President should protect the faith, for instance, of those Americans who profess Islam and Sikhism and who have recently been attacked for practicing their faiths?

Critics are dreamers. An enduring, effective critique is nearly impossible without a dream for the possible and vision of an alternative world. Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and many other religious figures were, Religion As Critique forcefully contends, critics par excellence; concerned not so much with the real but with that which is possible.

Likewise, in response to Trump’s statement that “In America, we don’t worship government, we worship God”, a critic might link this statement to the slogan “Make America Great Again” that many of Trump’s audience in Lynchburg wore on their baseball caps to ask: Did the slogan, then, mean making “God Great Again” because Americans are committed to God, not to the government? If so, does this rendition cohere with pre-nationalizing traditions of Christianity? Do all Americans who consider themselves Christian indeed endorse this rendition?

Questions such as these assemble things otherwise kept separate and dis-assemble things “naturally” connected. As many readers will have it already noticed, my description of critique as a work of assemblage and dis-assemblage is purposeful. It underlines limits of the assumption central to the earlier theorization of critique as debunking, unmasking, disclosure and the like.

Dreamers versus Critics: Before the Enlightenment

To return to Trump’s christening of critics as pathetic because they can’t get the job done, it is no less important to ask if the job is worth doing, or, if it is a job in the first place. The statement by Trump that I cited above, ended with the prophecy: “…but the future belongs to the dreamers, not to the critics.” The wedge between critics and dreamers that this statement forges is misleading. Critics are dreamers. An enduring, effective critique is nearly impossible without a dream for the possible and vision of an alternative world. Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and many other religious figures were, Religion As Critique forcefully contends, critics par excellence; concerned not so much with the real but with that which is possible.

It follows that reason and reflexivity were not the sole property of the Enlightenment and modernity; rather, they existed much earlier in the axial age (from 800 to 200 BC). Religion As Critique thus foregrounds an alternative genealogy of critique, which, contra Foucault, didn’t begin in Europe or the West. Nor was Reformation the first critical moment.

One fundamental proposition of my book is that the Enlightenment’s celebration of reason – in the German and the French renditions alike – was ethnic and non-universal. Through an engagement with Kant’s writings and those of Voltaire and other French philosophes, I demonstrate how Western ideas about reason and philosophy were, to cite Michael Dillon, “a security project in the fullest sense of the term”, and were crafted in opposition to Islam as an important “other.”

Within this historically informed theoretical horizon, the book goes past the reigning doxa – academic and popular – which posits Islam as hostile to reason and critique. It discusses notions and practices of critique within Islamic traditions to mark their similarities as well as differences vis-à-vis Western traditions. To this end, Religion As Critique critically maps out the exposition on Islam by Abul Ala Maududi (founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami in colonial India) through the multiple, thriving critiques of his exposition by the Jamaat’s former members and sympathizers, as well as activists of its student wing. Given its thematic objective, the book travels across South Asia, relating as it does to similar traditions in the Middle East, Africa, South-East Asia and Europe.      

Critique As An Everyday Practice

In his speech, Falwell praised Trump for enduring critique “from the media, the establishment…and from academia.” That the critique is the preserve of the educated and of academics, is a widespread notion. For long, indeed, critique has even been synonymous with literary critique alone. Religion As Critique anthropologically expands the domain of critique beyond the limited groove of intellectuals and (un)salaried philosophers to study everyday life intertwined with death of the ordinary actors like illiterate peasants, beggars and street vendors. Put differently, I bring critique to the academic stage as an ordinary social-cultural practice with extraordinary salience.

The book shows everyday practice of critique by examining one of the most outstanding mass movements for peace in history – the Ḳhudāī Ḳhidmatgār (Servants of God), launched in 1930 by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a “non-intellectual.” It discuss the role of mosques, reference to the Qurʾān, and employment of ṣabr (perseverance) in the pursuit of nonviolence and the struggle against British colonialism. Providing a unique lens into critique, I also dwell on the everyday usage of proverbs in South Asia – India and Pakistan – as an exemplification of critique. In particular, I discuss my encounter with a street vendor in Aligarh and his use of a critical proverb. As a disempowered person, his is an embodiment of critique of the wealthy removed from God. In short, Religion As Critique restores critique to where it belongs. It belongs, following Talal Asad, to “life … [as] essentially itself.”

To return to Trump’s speech – with which I began – rather than being pathetic, honest, responsible, imaginative critics are often prophetic.