Friday, March 04, 2005

Hodgson's Choice

I am ploughing/wading/struggling through Marshall Hodgson's epic three volume historical romp called "The Venture of Islam". The introduction alone is over a hundred pages long and makes long (and sometimes unnecessary) references to terminology and definitions. One of the more interesting definitions concerns the use of the word "Islamic" as a dual definition to refer to things which pertain to the religion of Islam and also to refer to matters which derive from or are in the style of things Islamic. 2 examples. We talk about "Islamic ritual" or "Islamic prayer" which correctly refer to rituals or prayers which derive from the Islamic religion. This is exactly the same as "Christian ritual" or "Buddhist prayer. Problems arise however when we speak of Islamic art or Islamic architecture. These do not derive (directly at any rate from the religion of Islam) but, more correctly, arise from the culture that became associated with Islam at different points of time. Nobody talks about "Christian Art" except where this is associated with the Christian faith - iconography, churches and the like.

To resolve the issue, Hodgson suggests that we employ the expression "Islamic" when referring directly to matters arising from the faith of Islam and "Islamicate" to refer to things deriving from Islam. His reference point seems to be the expression "Italianate" which refers to things arising in the Italian manner or from the Italian culture. I think the expression "Islamicate" is a little awkward but I do agree with the need for redefinition. Having established the difference Hodgson himself muddles up the two in the rest of the work (or as much of it as I've read so far!)

Ofcourse, there is the broader question of the popular use of expressions like "muslim" and "Islamist". Who or what are Muslims ? In the broader framework of popular culture, they are invariably Arabs with thier distinctive form of Islam. The populists often forget that Arabs make up less than 18% of the world muslim population. And what do we make of Bernard Lewis and "muslim rage" ? Which muslims does he have in mind ? Arabs? South Asians ? Malays? Africans ? The whole lot of 'em ? The expression "muslim" has become convenient shorthand for a mass of people (an "ummah" if one is to be technically correct) which embodies a wide range of cultures, ethnicities and nations.

"Islamist" I have yet to understand. Olivier Roy says the term is populist shorthand for a wide range of Islamic organisations which are characterised by their abhorrence of the "West" (another term which needs redefinition). However, he thinks this is meaningless as there are so many entities which fall under the gloss of "Islamist" as to render the expression devoid of any sense. The Jamaat-e-Islami and the Al-Qaeda may seem superficially similar but are very different in philosophy, orientation, method, intellectual tradition and targets. Roy terms the former "Islamist" and the latter fundamentalist or neofundamentalist. I know that "fundamentalist" derives from Christianity, but whether we like it or not, it is here to stay in the Muslim context as well.

And where do these terms have their origin ? Most of them do not arise from academics like Hodgson, Roy et al. The examples above show that by the time the academics do arrive at the terminology it has already embedded itself in the popular conscience. This conscience is fed by the news services, the BBC's and the CNN's. (I don't think Fox has yet invented anything remotely intelligent- but then again, anything is possible in the world of instant journalism.)And who runs the news services - reasonably intelligent men and women who are usually not specialists in any particular area but are able to readily (and instantaneously) translate an unedited mass of image and sound into comphrehensible television. The few I know have readily confessed that they work under severe limitations having to travel at a few hours notice to cover stuff which is fairly new. (The tsunami being a case in point.) These are the men and women who seem to have to "invent" instant terminology in order to provide the sound byte/shorthand that is needed to accompany the story. The examples are innumerable ("ethnic cleansing" "muslim fundamentalist" 'Palestinian terrorist") and are now so deeply a part of the collective conscience that most people do not even bother to think when they hear them repeatedly. This, I believe, is the level at which myth becomes reality, where terminology invariably has its genesis. And this is why we need to be very careful before we turn to news reports and the language they are couched in.


Post a Comment

<< Home