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Islamic Myths and Memories: Mediators of Globalization

  • Book Title:
 Islamic Myths
  • Book Author:
Itzchak Weismann
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Introduction: Islamic Myths and Memories  – Facing the Challenge of Globalization

“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die … To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly …” Out of thin air: a big bang, followed by falling stars. A universal beginning, a miniature echo of the birth of time … the jumbo jet Bostan, Flight AI-420, blew apart without warning, high above the great, beautiful, snow-white, illuminated city, Mahagonny, Babylon, Alphaville.1

So begins a powerful postmodern myth of globalization that spans Muhammad’s jahiliyya and today’s cosmopolitan London: immigration, the big city, and the unavoidable accompaniment: terrorism. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses features as its heroes Gibreel Farishta, the angel Gabriel who doubles as a Bollywood superstar, and Saladin Chamcha, the satanic anti-hero Salah al-Din who tries but fails to be British. In their interactions in heaven and on earth both are beyond reality and imagination, good and evil, past and present, East and West.

 The present wave of Islamic resurgence coincides with the era of globalization. Radical Islamists perpetuate the religio-national struggles begun at the height of modernity by the Muslim Brothers and Jama‘at-i Islami against colonial powers and indigenous secularized governments; but, operating from globally marginalized Muslim countries or from Western diaspora enclaves, Osama Bin Laden and the Jihadi-Salafis also transcend their forebears in an apocalyptic fight against worldwide unbelief.2

 At the other end of the scale, liberal Islamic intellectuals, many of them living in North America or Western Europe, are reiterating the modernist quest of Muhammad ‘Abduh and Sayyid Ahmad Khan to accommodate the West; yet, at the same time today’s modernists substitute for their predecessors’ apologetics a new confidence in a shared worldwide destiny.3

 From yet another angle, localized Muslim masses in the shantytowns of underdeveloped Muslim-majority countries or in the banlieues of the big cities in the West, once thought to be festering in their place, are now seen claiming their rights and freedoms, whether in the popular uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring or in demanding recognition as citizens on equal terms with the non-Muslim majorities in the West.

The media is an indispensable component of these popular uprisings as well as of the contemporary Islamic resurgence. From Imam Khomeini’s smuggled cassette tapes of his sermons during the Islamic revolution in Iran, to Osama Bin Laden’s provocative declarations of unbounded jihad against America and its allies on al-Jazeera, to Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s moderated Wasatiyya tendency on the same channel, to Tariq Ramadan’s appearances in the Western media calling for intercivilizational dialogue, to Shaykh Nazim’s online spiritual advice to virtual disciples, to ‘Amr Khalid’s “New Preaching,” Muslim men of religion of all colors and shades have made full use of the new informational technology to promote their various causes.

 The veteran Arab Afghans’ easy shift between arenas of conflict in Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, Kashmir, and the Philippines, the spectacle of 9/11 in New York and Washington, and internationally financed “start-up” terrorist acts from Madrid and London to Casablanca and Bali, and the jihadi da’wa (call to Islam) on the internet, all indicate that radical Islam fully participates in the current compression of the world.4

Myth and Memory

The literature on Islam and globalization is vast and rapidly growing.5 There is also a wide variety of studies on the place of the mass media in the contemporary Islamic resurgence.6 The present book seeks to contribute to this ongoing research by focusing on two interrelated theoretical perspectives that constitute a major component in the culture of globalization. These revolve around the concepts of myth and memory. The importance of myths of origins and collective memory has been recognized in the study of Western culture, and perhaps especially in the study of Israel,7 but until now it has been little used in the study of Islam, and hardly at all in the study of globalized Islam.8

Mythological thinking and socio-cultural remembering (and forgetting) have been major mechanisms for the constitution and maintenance of all societies, both premodern and modern. Articulated through religious beliefs,9 or the imagination of the nation,10 they secure their communities’ attachment to specific times and places.

The essays in this collection seek to explore how the annulment of spatial/temporal distances by globalization and the contraction of the world by the new communication technologies underlying it has affected the cherished myths and memories of the Muslim community, and how various contemporary Islamic thinkers and movements have responded to the challenges of globalization by preserving, reviving, reshaping, or transforming these myths and memories altogether.

In the present environment of impersonal market forces, ubiquitous media signs, governmental disengagement, mass consumption, and worship of the here and now, myths may seem redundant and collective memory attenuated. Pierre Nora believes that it was under such circumstances that myth came to be regarded as merely false belief, while memory resorted to the aid of unceasing cycles of commemorations.11

We contend that not only are past myths and collective memory very much alive in contemporary localized struggles for identity, but that they are also deployed in the ongoing construction of worldwide networks. For today’s Islamic thinkers and activists—as, indeed, for all myth-makers—myths and memories are not mere nostalgia, but rather important tools in the cultural politics of globalization.

Myth and memory are constantly deployed, at both global and local levels, in evolving public discourses on religion, society, and politics, in the practical ways in which da‘wa (Islamic preaching) is reconstructed as the backbone of community and meaning, and in the modes by which jihad is reformulated in the struggle for the sake of the faith community.

The concept of myth usually refers to stories of epic character about gods or (super)human heroes. Such stories are known from the dawn of history, and in modern times their study has been pursued particularly by social anthropologists and students of comparative religion. Most myths deal with the past—creation myths, of the universe or of the ethnie—but some may turn to the future, as with apocalyptic myths.

Many of them are also connected to specific places—the center of the world, the place of origin, the site of the end of days.12 As Emmanuel Sivan notes in his discussion of Arab political myths, their function beyond the recreational aspect is twofold: to provide an explanation for current realities, and to mobilize for action. The first involves locating the present in the historical continuum, the second legitimizes or delegitimizes the existing order.13

Islam has its share of myths of origins and hero myths, epic stories about the time, places, and people with whom the deity was present. These of course center on Muhammad, the seal of the prophets (khatam al-nabiyiin) and the model (al-uswa al-hasana) for all Muslims throughout the ages, and on Mecca and Medina, the sites of his call. Other prophets, righteous men and fighters for the cause of Islam, second him in various localized levels.

 This is the context of the myth of the Satanic temptation of the Prophet that Salman Rushdie reused with reference to contemporary concerns of Muslims in the West, as Ulrika Mårtensson’s contribution to this volume demonstrates, as well as of the retelling of stories of the prophets among Muslim immigrants discussed by Gerd Marie Ådna.

In the Muslim majority countries, the lessons of the prophets are taken up and adapted to the concerns of the common people by “new preachers” such as Amru Khaled, analyzed by Shosh Ben Ari. Of special status for the Sunni Muslims are also the Prophet’s companions, the collective hero of the pious forefathers (al-salaf al-salih), which is the best of generations, while for Shi‘is these are the imams, the usurpation of whose power is deplored in the Ashura ritual to this day.

The myth of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, who were responsible for the great conquests of early Islam, and the reenactment of this myth by the Ottomans in the face of the modern European onslaught, inspires not only Bin Laden and the globalized militants of al-Qaeda, but also contemporary Turkish popular culture, as Martin Riexinger’s chapter shows. The myth of the shura, the council that was formed to choose the third Caliph, frames some liberal Muslims’ call for democracy, as well as that of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, as presented by Uriya Shavit.

A later myth, which was appropriated for a time by Arab nationalists but has now returned to the Islamic fold, is that of the Crusaders, who had attacked Muslim lands but were ultimately repulsed. The contemporary use made of this myth is discussed in this volume, among others, by Xiaofei Tu in the unusual context of China.

The myth of the apocalypse, as Itzchak Weismann shows, has been adjusted to the global cultural economy by the Sufi Shaykh Nazim, who frames it as a response to the globalized Salafi-Wahhabi challenge to Sufism.

More recently a different, depersonalized and profanitized, meaning of myth has been offered and gained ground within the cultural discipline of semiotics. Roland Barthes characterizes “myth today” as an ideology or “speech,” in which preexisting signs are appropriated and stripped of their historical context and signification, to be infused with new mystifying conceptual content. This has “the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification and making contingency appear eternal.”

 In this way myths make particular worldviews appear to be unchallengeable because natural or God-given.14 Capitalizing on these insights, Bruce Lincoln remarks that such mystification may serve not only the bourgeoisie, as Barthes believed, but also other strata of society, and that myths not only reflect, encode, and help replicate established structures, but may also be employed as effective instruments of struggle against them.15

Most powerful among the sort of ideological myths observed by Barthes in contemporary Islam are Sayyid Qutb’s trans-historical use of the concept of jahiliyya (the era of ignorance or barbarity that preceded Islam), through which he conveyed Islamist resistance to Nasser’s oppressive regime,16 and the image of al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem found in so many houses across the Muslim world, a visual representation of the Palestinians’ plight which Nimrod Luz discusses in relation to the Palestinian minority in Israeli.

Such myths on the more mundane level are women’s struggle to drive in Saudi Arabia, the purda in London, and the American Idol competition in Afghanistan, which point to specifically Islamic tensions between freedom and bondage, equality and hierarchy, individualism and collectivism, tradition and modernity, and the local and the global. Globalized media may transform and globalize these myths, but they have their limits: the global umma created through images in the media remains a virtual umma.

The concept of memory has likewise two major meanings that span the fault line of the cultural turn of the late twentieth century. One is conveyed through Maurice Halbwachs’ seminal term of collective memory, which emphasizes the importance of the social in the process of remembering.

He claimed that every social group develops a memory of its past through shared images, stories, and rituals that highlight its unique identity, providing it with a sense of continuity through time and space, and enhancing its solidarity. Modern societies in particular also tend to refashion their past in order to further some present political objective.

What society remembers or forgets thus reflects its self image, identity, aspirations, and the course of action it wishes to take.17 Jan and Aleida Assmann’s complementary concept of cultural memory stresses the role of traditions transmitted through the generations in shaping the collective memory. Within it they distinguish between functional memory, which reflects what a society needs, and stored memory, conscious and unconscious, which makes room for the heretical, the subversive, and the disowned.18

Like all other peoples, Muslims’ remembering and forgetting are shaped between their sociopolitical circumstances and cultural traditions. The predominant Islamic regressive view of history as a process of deterioration from the time of the Prophet to the end of days attunes Muslims’ social memory to the distant past. This does not always come at the expense of the more recent past, as Mark Sedgwick’s examination of Arab popular historical memory demonstrates. Still, as we have seen, Muslims’ collective memory has usually focused on the myths of origins relating to the Prophet and the early generations.

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