CRUCIBLE: Developing Discourses

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/21 March) – The ummah or the Muslim world faces unique challenge too early in this century. They need to navigate ways to face effectively such challenge. It includes their recourse to varied forms of discourses so that they become more effective in addressing their plight. In this regard, they have to also explore ways and means where they are not necessarily placed in “danger zone” every time they raise the bar of their struggle to new heights. This way, too, they are able to create more sustainable impact and become more effective as catalysts in transforming society.

Contrasting landscapes

Recently, the declaration by some Arab states against the Ikhwan or Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as “terrorist” organization changed the political landscape in the Middle East. It has constricted the space of freedom among ulama (religious scholars) identified with the Ikhwan given its long-standing influence in the Middle East including other countries in the Muslim world. Certainly, even their ability to express themselves is affected. A case in point is the known cleric Yusuf Al-Qadarawi. He is an ardent supporter of Muslim Brotherhood ever since. He has been based in Qatar – the only Arab country that has taken a stand different from other Gulf countries as far as the Ikhwan is concerned. Before this time, Qadarawi was the darling of many Arab leaders and media including those in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

I had witnessed an occasion where we were invited together with other ulama and Muslim scholars from many parts of the world in the Janadriyyah Festival in Riyadh sponsored by then HRH Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in the early 2000s. Shaykh Al-Qadarawi was highly regarded then by both Saudi royalties and Wahabbi ulama. Unless Al-Qadarawi shifts gear, the mantle of authority he carries must now be restrained with today’s new irritants among Arab countries. Given Al-Qadarawi’s track record, he is expected not to easily kowtow to power.

This changing landscape is not new in the history of the Muslim world. For a long time, the role of ulama has ebbed and flowed in rough seas of politics: high tide today, low tide tomorrow or vice-versa. The changing character of power in Muslim society has long defined ulama’s position including their discourses and articulation.

In different but interesting development, the recourse to what may be referred to as “cyber satire” by social activists and artists like Hisham Fageeh, a Saudi national who came up with “No Woman, No Drive” video and became viral in the Internet provides certain opening in the trend of discourses in the Arab world. It creates a genre of social criticism away from traditional modes of discourses. It is, like other artistic productions, more creative and effective without necessarily getting harsh or violent reaction from authority. In a sense, such opening reveals some degree of maturity not only amongst people but possibly even in certain circles of those in power while minimizing threats of violence.

Bayan tradition

We raise these contrasting pictures of how the tradition of bayan (speech) and related discourses in the Muslim world to show that it has been in many ways crucial in the transformation of society.

Bayan including such genres as khutbah (sermon/discourse) and hijah or satire and others is a long time tradition in the Muslim world. It is a tradition that sustained the rich culture of oration and rhetoric in Muslim society. Apart from poetry, the Arab world particularly, has been home to various oral traditions characterized with many discourses including those used by both traditional and contemporary ulama.

There are three verses in the Qur’an that speak of the term bayan or speech. Two verses speak of the Qur’an as the main source of bayan. Suratu l-rahman, for instance, talks about the nature of bayan. It reads:

“God Most Gracious! It is He Who has taught the Qur’an, He has created man: He has taught him speech (and intelligence (1).”

In another sura, the Qur’an speaks of the relationship between bayan and truth (haq) where the former is treated as a reflection of the latter. It says:

“Many where the Ways of Life that have passed away before you: travel through the earth and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth.

Here is a plain statement (bayan) to men, a guidance and instruction to those who fear God! (Al-Imran: 137-138).”

It is clear that bayan has to be the reflection of truth. It is the anchor of Islamic discourses including khutbah .

Discourse and development

The development of modern society including technology provides new platform in the way discourses are made. In the old days, the tradition was obviously limited to oral ones. The power of discourses, then, was immense. Yet, discourses of ulama could easily transform the hearts and minds of their adherents; they could easily reach out and convince people.

With the advent of print media, a new mode of communication was adopted and subsequently enriched the process of communication between the ulama and the people. The birth of new technology on writings and mass printing, recording through cassette tapes, and now the Internet, provides far more sophisticated platforms. For instance, the rise of the Nursi Group in Turkey was mainly attributable to the role of scribes in writing the thoughts of Badiuzzaman Said Nursi. The same development happened in many countries when Islamic movements of various sorts printed the discourses of their leaders where they created impact in varying ways. A turning point happened during the time of Imam Khomeini when the instrument for reaching out was through his voice recorded in cassette tapes sent from France to Iran on the eve of the fall of the Pahlavi regime. That catapulted mass consciousness amongst Iranians.

Today’s advent of social media like Facebook and others has taken immense effect in the early days of the Arab Spring. All these suggest that the Islamic world has been swept immensely by varying modes or medium of communication providing them new platforms into which they are able to articulate their discourses while reaching mass and global audiences. As Arab Spring advanced and floundered though, at least initially, some results spurred positive change; others result into more violence and conflict. Those in power could simply not accept that a new dawn has come owing largely to new platforms of discourses.

Cyber satire

When we highlight the case of Hisham Fageeh, a Saudi artist and social activist, who quite effectively used satire to drive home a point, it means the consciousness and creativity to effect social change remains alive in many hearts. When authority hardly noticed this rather viral artwork, it could either mean that authority simply did not mind; or the sting is not venomous enough, that it is not able to call attention.

The recourse to satire is not necessarily a new development in the Arab world. It goes prominently back to, at least, the time of Al-Jahiz, a Muslim scholar in the 9th century known for his voluminous works particularly in the fields of sciences including his famous “Kitab al-Hayawan” (The Book of Animals). Al-Jahiz was of the view that works on natural and social sciences are a little boring unless they are injected or inserted with few amusing anecdotes or thrown with some witty or paradoxical observation.

There were other ulama that used satire. We could only assume that it became quite popular then because it was a way into which certain truth was presented in rather humorous manner in order to effect social criticism that would not necessarily create harsh reaction whose weapon is simply wit, candor, and cleverness. This way, the powers that be would not be very much alarmed. This is important in the context of medieval Islam because many ulama and mystics in those times where executed due to their dissent against authority. Hence, their discourses also ranged from most traditional to most political.


Khutbah is a deeply entrenched tradition that goes back obviously to Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and the four sahabah (Prophetic companions). This went on until the Umayyad period where caliphs also serve as imam (leader) in mosques. According to a source, by the time of Harun Al-Rashid of the Abbasid Caliphate a certain group particularly among the ulama was given the role to act as khatib (preacher). This went on invariably with succeeding empires and dynasties until the birth of Muslim nation-states.

In recent time, ulama became the source of discursive authority. But they came under the sway of the State in most instances. They could not express their thoughts freely. There were many instances, too, when the tradition of discourses began to take its own autonomy separate from the State. A classic case would be institutions like the Al-Azhar University. Discourses in this refutable institution became a source of power for the ulama; hence, eliciting reaction from the State to interfere in Al-Azhar’s affairs. The history of Al-Azhar has long been punctuated with State intervention where, most often, the axe falls on ulama and their free speech.

This is relatively true in many parts of the Muslim world. Hence, varied ways and creative methodologies in doing discourse have to be employed so ulama could navigate effectively with their freedom to express unhindered. An anthropologist wrote how the tradition of discourses was underpinned by power struggle in the case of Egypt particularly in a place called Minya during the time of President Anwar Sadat. He wrote:

“It becomes evident that an official strategy of appropriating traditional religious symbols in the course of what amounts to a power struggle between social groups and rival interests can very quickly blur any boundaries that might normally obtain between zeal for piety’s sake and straight forward political activism. Almost unavoidably in such a setting, the government’s calculated adoption of the religious mantle has the effect of starting bidding competition. The volatility of such a process results in large measure from the fact it is conducted in more than one mode simultaneously. Not only are bids advanced, as it were, between supporters and dissenters of specific policies or of as primarily to protect what is essentially religious from profanation by mundane abuses. Meanwhile, all invoke the same symbols. But frequently such circumstances lead to the appearance of new forms of expression, which claims for themselves the contested authenticity. A process of rapid ideological inflation caused by a flooding of the opinion market through the formidable mechanism of officially controlled mass media may almost spontaneously produce a new, more convincing currency (116).”

Patrick D. Gaffney the author of “The Prophet’s Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt” highlights a certain irony where contestation happens supposedly amongst varied groups that are using similar symbols. Prominent of them are symbols related to Islam. The State would use a certain perspective aimed to legitimize authority; whereas dissenters would use other forms of symbolism aimed to deflect or delegitimize authority. In matters where state power becomes dominant, ulama are usually left with little choices. Those who took the cudgel and pursued radical stance and who, by judgment of history, failed with their struggle, were either put to jail or executed and martyred. And those who could not resist oppression would have to migrate to other areas. In situations where the state could overreach its power, ulama are faced with even more constraints. This is happening not only in the Middle East, but also in many parts of the Muslim world today.

What’s new is the platform available now like social media and so on. How much this is being utilized is a question. And how much effort would those in powers do to resist the rush of new media and new technology is also a question. What is clear is, today’s society is now swept asunder by new technology with new media platforms heightening thus people’s quest to see new light, to break new dawn.

There is a need to rethink old ways in doing discourses, and see how effective they are in lifting up people’s spirituality while effecting positive change in society. Except in few circles, there is still no consensus in the way new model of discourses is conducted in the Muslim world. Well, we appreciate such variety. But with new trend and challenge in the 21st century, there is a need to evolve more effective and creative ways.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A slightly revised khutbah delivered at the UP Institute of Islamic Studies on 14 March 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].