January 31, 2010

Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering (Book Review)

In the discourse on Islam prevalent in the popular media and academia, one frequent Manichaen dichotomy one finds is that between so-called 'liberal' Islam and 'radical' or 'Islamist' Islam. This dichotomy is predicated on a superficial understanding of Islamic philosophy and Islamic discourse, in which the theological and philosophical bases for categorization are rarely revealed. If they are, the categories are those of Western liberal discourse, which whatever their virtues as 'universal' values cannot help but operate under particular blind spots and presumptions when it comes to Islamic philosophy.

I view Dr. Sherman Jackson's intervention in Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering as an intervention aimed to correct that ignorance. As such it is one of the best books I have read that attempts the work of cultural translation: that is interpreting Islamic philosophers from the Classical period (8th-12th centuries) in a manner which respects their philosophical positions and imbues their positions with meaning and relevance for the current era.

Dr. Jackson's book is structured as a response to another theological work, Is God a White Racist? by William Jones, which argues that traditional black theodicy overprivileges the idea of redemptive suffering, and that by implication they create the idea that God favors whites. In point of fact, Jones intellectual inspiration is more rooted in Camus and Sartre than any specific theologian from the Christian tradition.

To counter this bold and controversial statement, Jackson lays out the theological positions of the major Islamic theodicies: Mutazilite, Ash'arite, Mutiridite and Traditionalist. After an introduction and first chapter dealing with black theodicy and the problem of evil, he starts by outlining the basis of Quranic interpretation and the development of classical Islamic theology. He then systematically explains the arguments of the major schools over the basis of reason for interpreting truth, the real nature of God, the problem of free will, and God's omnibenevolence vs. God's omnipotence. At the end of discussing each school of thought, Jackson addresses the points of agreement and disagreement between their approach and Jones's.

This book actually works on two levels. Even if one does not have an interest in the various currents of black theology and theodicy as such, the book is one of the best explanations of classical Islamic philosophy I have read in English. It is simultaneously extremely erudite and accessible, a difficult balance pulled off by the author through his clear prose and consistent re-explanation of previous points in order to contrast them. He is passionate about taking the reader on a journey through these beliefs yet ultimately agnostic on his own preference, leaving that to the discerning reader. He does however, urge that blackAmerican Muslims equip themselves with the philosophical and conceptual tools to in order to shape the character of the Muslim community in America. His book is meant as a tool towards that end.

If I have one critique of this book, it is that Dr. Jackson does not historically situate many of these theological debates. Nor does he problematize to any great degree significant anti-black tendencies which inhere in the writings of some Arab scholars and poets. He writes of the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owning thousands of slaves, but he does not see fit to question or criticize a great number of Islamic scholars who operated under similar conditions. This brings us to the question of the links between race and slavery in the Islamic world, an uncomfortable topic for many. And it points to the gaps between idealist conceptions of a belief or religion (for example Islam's teachings on slavery) and the actual practice of Muslims in societies with great numbers of slaves (for example 19th century Zanzibar). For more on this debate, Hishaam Aidi has an interesting article. I won't say more because the debate is complex and a bit of a rabbit hole, but suffice to say that Jackson finessed his approach in discussing these provocative issues.

For example, in one footnote Jackson argues that although there is a presumed opposition between "Islam" and "the West", there is no presumed opposition between Islam and blackness. While this is in part true, it ignores significant historical events where in fact the two did conflict (i.e. the Zanzibar Revolution). Jackson does not engage at all with Bernard Lewis's discussion of race and Islam in Race and Slavery in the Middle East. Even if one disagrees vehemently with Lewis's political stances and often reductive writing about Islam, the sources he presents bear engagement and critique with, especially if Jackson's point is to be strengthened. In the end, Jackson's analysis points to a difficulty Jackson himself raises: how in particular cases of overemphasis "blackness" or "Islamic" become neologisms, with more meaning to the person who uses them than a common agreement about their provenance and direction.

I don't necessarily see these omissions as faults per se. They nevertheless point to the need for a historical engagement with these issues. Jackson's book is a work of theology, and in this dimension is is a skillfully argued plea for Islam as a religion capable of meeting the challenge of black suffering as well as a clear explication of Islamic theodicy. It remarkably succeeds in both the academic register and as a sustained personal plea.


W. Hassan Marsh February 4, 2010 at 12:42 AM  

That's one smooth review brother. I have been thinking particularly about the relationship of Islam and blackness while being in Egypt. To be honest, there was a time when I idealized Islam for liberating and what sometimes appears as an anti-discriminating ideology, especially in contrast to christianity. However, I cannot stress more the level of which living in the arab world has betrayed my previous opinions. That is not to say, however, we can easily apply the term racist to Islam or to Arabs, particularly as we understand it in the West. It is indeed a rabbit hole that requires volumes for its commentary. That should give you enough to work on in your scholarly career.

ER,  February 10, 2010 at 9:31 PM  

Jackson dealt with aspects of the racist attitudes of Muslims in both the pre-modern and modern periods in his previous book "Islam and the Blackamerican," (2005) especially in the chapter on Black Orientalism.

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