I write precisely because I don’t know yet what to think about a subject that attracts my interest. In so doing, the book transforms me, changes what I think. As a consequence, each new work profoundly changes the terms of thinking which I had reached with the previous work…When I write, I do it above all to change myself and not to think the same thing as before.
Michel Foucault in Remarks on Marx, 1981
I didn’t expect to discover something about myself today. I discovered something about the way that I communicate, write, and conduct my research. Foucault went on to say that in the beginning of a project, he never knows what the conclusion will be. Work is experience. This insight is something that Western academics rarely talk about. That is because there is this standard of removed and objective scholarship. But we all have something at stake in the production of knowledge.
We should have something at stake and be transformed by our work. Louis Brenner’s study of education reform in Mali, Controlling Knowledge shows us how traditional methods of Islamic education linked knowledge with practice. Knowledge was supposed to be implemented, knowledge was transformative, with every level of education from early Quranic school to higher Islamic sciences, students’ daily lives were changed. Now, people learn a subject without changing, or at least they imagine themselves to remain objective and removed from the subject. I think that Western orientations stress the mastery of knowledge and stockpiling information. It is like a hoarding of knowledge without applying it or using it effectively. Through modernizing reforms in Islamic education Western orientations have shaped Muslims and their approaches to knowledge. Knowledge is less linked to practice (praxis), and just knowing does not make one a better Muslim, let alone person.
But back to why I write. I write because I am wrestling with difficult issues. I don’t know the conclusion of my life will look like. I have so many questions and I’m not sure what to think about many things. But I know that I want to change and be better. I have often had a difficult time writing about the present, but have looked to the past–distant and recent. One of my primary interests has been the ways knowledge is passed on in the Muslim world, and how it is spread across space and through time. Often, as a historian, I am confronted with limitations of what can be known about people’s experiences. There is always the problem of evidence–skewed evidence and lack of evidence. We can barely talk to each other and understand the ways people now order their lives and make sense of their worlds. It seems like an impossible task to interpret fragments of evidence to get at the lived experiences of those who are long gone. I write because I don’t know what to think about those fragments in documentary evidence or those tales that were passed on in oral traditions. I write to make sense of those bits. It is a narrative, but is it fictional? Perhaps in a sense that it simplifies, creates analogies, comparisons, and connections that the people who lived in the past may not have seen. Yet, what was legible to them is not longer legible for me. Ultimately, I am subject to the whims of knowledge and what can be known.
With all the limitations of an impossible task, I am seeking knowledge, truth, and the reality of my lived experiences. If al-Haqq (Ultimate Reality and Truth) is infinite, then mere mortals can only grasp a finite sliver of Truth for an ephemeral moment. Postmodernists point argue that there is not a universal truth. Not one that we can fully grasp, at least.
Randomness, I know…The things an insominiac writes late at night.
7 thoughts on “Why I write”
I love this – masha’Allah your writing resonates with many people (certainly with me). Exploring why we write is therapeutic and grounding. And I love that excerpt from Foucault – it shows writing as something alive, exciting in its potential to change ourselves and society.
By now, many of you have heard the offensive comments made by former MSNBC broadcaster and radio personality Don Imus refering the Rutgers Female Basketball Team as “nappy headed hos”. For Muslims not understanding the offense of these statements, they basically attack these young womens sexual integrity: a “ho” is an urban slang abbreviation for a WHORE, and hair texture: “nappy’ refering to curly textured hair in a derogatory and inferior manner. Therefore, these statements enforce constant negative images of Black Women’s self worth, beauty, and sexuality integrity.
Some Muslims may say: This is a Black issue, what does this have to do with us? WELL, these are some of the comments that were made on Don Imus’ show by his then sidekick Sid Rosenberg about Palestinians:
“He (Rosenberg) also has a thing for Palestinians. In 2004, he referred to them on the Imus show as “Stinking animals … they ought to drop the bomb right there, kill ‘em all right now.”
My point is that we as Muslims have an obligation to fight injustice and oppression of any type. When we hear racially offensive comments thrown about in society we should not feal indifferent because they do not refer to us. Often times that same racist making those statements is the Islamophobe who makes genocidal comments about Muslims.
Also, this should be a reminder that as an Ummah we should clean our own houses and purge ourselves of any of the sentiments that could lead to offensive and hurtful words being used amongst ourselves.
Wa-alaikum Salaam wa-rahmatula.
see link below about Sid Rosenberg:
I believe you, sister, but I’m not sure if I believe Foucault. I can’t claim to understand everything I’ve read of his, but he certainly is an interesting figure, and compelling writer. In some ways, he provides all the tools to tear down Western structures of knowledge-power (or is it power-knowledge?) which leaves an opening for other voices. But he also pushes the moral relativism thing, the all-as-discourse thing, the radical materialism thing….
As for his claim, “I write precisely because I don’t know yet what to think about a subject that attracts my interest”…I have my doubts. When he set out to write his history of sexuality, did he ever imagine that he might discover fixed, universal standards of sexual morality….or was he offering an intellectual justification for his adventures in the SF bath houses?
BTW, I just started a book called Schooling Islam, which includes as essay by the author you mentioned above. It you haven’t seen it yet, it is about Islamic education systems across the globe.
Regarding Imus’ comment and the above comment:
I read the following last week…RIGHT ON TIME
If we look at the world today, the tribulations, the trials, and every war that we have, we will see that every bit of human suffering is rooted in human hearts. The reason people are aggressive against other people is due to diseases of the heart: covetousness, the desire to conquer, the desire to exploit other people, and the desire to steal their natural resources are all from diseases of the heart. A sound heart cannot commit such acts. Every murderer, every rapist, every idolater, every fowl person, every person showing an act of cruelty has a diseased heart because these actions emanate from diseased hearts. If the hearts were sound, none of these actions would be a reality. Therefore, if we wish to change our world, we cannot go about it by attempting to rectify the outward; rather, we change the world by rectifying the inward because it is the inward that precedes the outward.
In reality, everything that we see outside of us comes from the unseen world. The phenomenal world emerges from the unseen world, and all actions emerge from the unseen realm of our hearts. Thus, if we want to rectify our actions, we must first rectify our hearts. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the famous American preacher and civil rights activist, said that in order for people to condemn injustice, they have to follow four stages: the first stage is that they must ascertain that injustices are indeed being perpetrated. People must point out the injustices, and in his case, it was injustices against the African-American people in the United States. The second stage is to negotiate: people must go to the oppressors and demand justice. If the oppressors refuse, then Dr. King said that the third stage is self-purification. He said that we must ask ourselves, are we ourselves wrongdoers? Are we ourselves oppressors? The final stage is to take action once we have looked into ourselves.
One of the things the Muslims of the modern world fail to recognize is that when we look at all of the terrible things that are happening to us, we often refuse to look at ourselves and ask ourselves, why are these things happening to us? If we ask that in all sincerity, the answer will come back in no uncertain terms that this is all from our own selves. We have brought all of the suffering upon ourselves. This is the only empowering position that we can take, and this is the Quranic position. Allah subhanahu wa t’ala says quite clearly that He places some of the oppressors over other oppressors because of what their hands were earning. According to Fakharudin ar-Razi’s explanation, radi Allahu ‘anhu, this verse means that whenever there is oppression in the earth, it is a result of other people’s oppression. Thus, those people who are being aggressed upon are being oppressed because of their own oppression. However, this is obviously with the exception of tribulation. There are definitely times when the mu’minun are tried, but if they respond accordingly with patience and perseverance, Allah subhanahu wa t’ala always gives them victory.
An insightful piece. One of the things I really value about blogging is the ability to practice writing. On my blog, I don’t feel I have to make everything word perfect. I can experiment, explore and push boundaries – to see what works and what doesn’t.
I certainly share some of the reservations about Michel Foucalt (though I don’t claim to be very familiar with his work). However, I do share the belief that ideas are thrashed out when writing. In my own area, I find that I can maintain the luxury of sitting on the fence when I’m just reading. However, once I start to write, I have to formulate an opinion – in other words, make a judgement.
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