November 4, 2015

Public Healing Monotheism and Violence: The Religious Encounter in African History

a Mijikenda sacred grove in East Africa

The various teachers of precolonial African history I've had the privilege to learn from all emphasize that “public healing” is a useful descriptive to understand how a variety of people in Africa understood the connected realm that Western scholars separate into religion and politics. Public healing in Africa symbolized and symbolizes the collective aspiration for harmony, social reproduction and abundance. Public healing was about healing the political-social body. One of my mentors calls this dynamic discourse of public healing “a moral aspiration for community.” And it is very very old. For instance, if you go back and look at the identity of the earliest dynasty in Great Lakes history, the progenitor to all the subsequent kingdoms, that dynasty is not really a dynasty at all, but a coalition of healers, mystics and wisemen called the Cwezi.

Till today, the Cwezi continue to be venerated, as what some might label as gods, or perhaps more accurately, ancestors or spirits. In some places in the Great Lakes region, the place where this veneration happened was a territorial shrine. In 1996, the Ugandan journalist Geoffrey Kamali described a fleet of seven taxis filled with people who left Kampala in the middle of the night following an “ancestor guide”, someone who had the ability to communicate with these spirits. They sought a shrine on a hilltop outside Kampala, a place with many caves. They brought cash and coffee berries to give to the omusambwa of that place, the territorial spirit. During the fire, some people became possessed by the spirits and the ancestor guide moved through the fire without being burned. Afterwards she took the people to the shores of Lake Victoria, where she tattooed their right arms and asked them to confess their sins to her and swallow several of the coffee berries.

The Great Lakes experience is not unique. Similar kinds of shrines exist at the East African coast. The Giriama are one group among the Mijikenda, a people who have lived near the Swahili coast for many centuries. In the precolonial era, they most often lived in rural areas adjacent to the coastal towns. They had their own forms of sacred enclosures/shrines in the form of groves of trees, called kayas. In 1914, the British, in response to Giriama resistance to British colonial taxation and labor policies, demolished one of these sacred groves. The main trees and gates were blown up, all the dwellings and trees inside the kaya burned, and the entrance dynamited and barricaded. This prompted a rebellion by the Giriama, in which 5000 houses were burnt and 150 men killed. Harming religious-political space touched to the core of Giriama conceptions of the good and the sacred.

Nor where such sacred shrines confined to the continent of Africa. They were also found throughout "Arabia" both before and after the arrival of Islam, and constituted an important part of how people related to the divinity. When we think of the ka'aba, we usually think of a place in Mecca, but a ka'aba could potentially be any sacred place where people would gather to seek intercession. It was a plural religious space, where violence was forbidden. This is not to say that people always respected these boundaries, but there were rules elaborated about coexisting sacred spheres.

For monotheistic visions of divinity, public healing can look a lot like polytheism, paganism or shirk. Where it gets controversial for African and Islamic history is when the Prophet Muhammad is directly implicated in the destruction of such sacred places. Hisham Ibn al-Kalbi, the famous Kufan scholar, in his book Kitaab-ul-asnam, reports the following passage:
"When the Apostle of God captured Mecca and the Arabs embraced Islam, among the delegates who came to pay their homage was Jarir ibn-'Abdullah. He came to the Apostle and embraced Islam before him. Thereupon the Apostle addressed him saying, "O Jarir! Wilt thou not rid me of dhu-al-Khalasah?" Jarir replied, "Yea." So the Apostle dispatched him to destroy it. He set out until he got to the banu-Abmas of the Bajilah [tribe] and with them he proceeded to dhu-al-Khalasah. There he was met by the men… who resisted him and attempted to defend dhu-al-Khalasah. He, therefore, fought them and killed a hundred men of the Bahilah, its custodians, and many of the Khath'am; while of the banu-Qubafah ibn-'Amir ibn-Khath'am, he killed two hundred. Having defeated them and forced them into flight, he demolished the building which stood over dhu-al-Khalasah and set it on fire." 
This incident is also in Sahih al-Bukhari :
"During the Jahiliya, there was a house called Dhu-l-Khalasa or Al-Ka'ba Al-Yamaniya or Al-Ka'ba Ash-Shamiya. The Prophet said to me, "Won't you relieve me from Dhu-l-Khalasa?" So I set out with one-hundred-and-fifty riders, and we dismantled it and killed whoever was present there. Then I came to the Prophet and informed him, and he invoked good upon us and Al-Ahmas." 

Keep in mind here, we are talking about the destruction of a very similar type of shrine to that of the Cwezi shrines or the Giriama sacred groves. In fact, Dhu al-Khalasa was simply a carved piece of white quartz, resting in a place called the ka’aba by the local people who tended it. People used to come to this shrine when faced with difficult decisions and seek advice. It was sacred to those people, as showed by their determination to defend it.

The above incident raises several uncomfortable questions for the Islamic tradition and, beyond that for all monotheistic traditions. What is the difference between ancestor veneration and idolatry, and who gets to decide what that difference is? What are the limitations of the concept of toleration in dealing with the religious other? How does monotheism construct its other? I wonder if we regard the Prophet Muhammad’s need to destroy other people’s holy objects as a form of necessary evil on the way to monotheism. Were the tribes and the men a form of collateral damage in the march of the progress of the deen?

Forms of ancestor veneration and spirit possession have been a nearly universal part of all cultures and civilizations. The ancient Egyptians venerated ancestors, through a panoply of shrines, gods, idols, statues, figurines. One wonders however, if the ancient Egyptians worshipped their gods as a community in Mecca under the Prophet, would they have been regarded as rank idolators? I don't know the answer, but the above incident made me think about the likelihood that their buildings and shrines would have been burnt down and destroyed under those circumstances.

I would suggest that we need to interrogate the epistemological assumptions at the root of 1) the categorical move to create people whose beliefs place them beyond the sacred law, and thus in natural rebellion 2) the logic that makes it necessary to kill hundreds of men, simply to destroy an idol, and the moral calculus that makes figuring that possible. More is at work here than mere “Arab ethnocentrism” or “Arab racism” versus “African” religion. In fact what is at work is a profound devaluation of other forms of epistemology, cosmology and meaning making about the sacred in Africa.

For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad is understandably the moral exemplar of a virtuous life. This is not an attack on the Prophet. As a human, he was truly great, a man who rose above the times he lived in. As a prophet, he was no doubt inspired. As a political leader he often dealt with difficult situations with the greatest sensitivity to human personality. But on the coexistence of monotheism with what we understand as “polytheism”, paganism, shirk, or iconoclasm, I believe the overwhelming historical evidence doesn’t support the way he linked polytheism to disobedience to the one God.

The great scholar of religion Talal Asad has done much work denaturalizing the secular, as something that the West created to help it imagine itself as civilized, and those still stuck in religious orthodoxy as barbarous. In fact, Asad and his many students have said and have demonstrated that secularism created religion, as a category with which to consign forms of non-rational belief. But Asad and his students have not gone far enough. Just as Euro-Americans have had difficulty recognizing that their experience of the Enlightenment was particular to their cultural and historical trajectory and its categories, so the Abrahamic traditions have had incredible difficulties recognizing the particularity of their own experience of universal religion. It would be interesting to get Asad's thoughts on how the Abrahamic faiths have created a category of shirk or polytheism,  filled it with a host of negative, immoral meanings which do not correspond to what we actually find in the historical record, and then constructed themselves in distinction to it. This process of meaning making has had profoundly tragic consequences for non-monotheistic aspirations for moral community and divinity.

I do not think these anecodetes exhaust the possible entailments of Islam, Muslims or Islamic epistemologies. But they do highlight the degree to which force, conquest and a deliberate violence, both epistemological and literal are part of attempts to secure a particular tradition as sacrosanct. How do we avoid linking the sacred with a concept of governing exclusion? In reforming society a prophet has to participate in public life, in the affairs and concerns of the many, rather than in the cultivation of the one. The prophetic has to combine the ethical with the political. As the philosopher Muhammad Iqbal describes it, the Prophet returns: ‘to insert himself into the sweep of time with a view to control the forces of history, and thereby create a fresh world of ideals.’ To make a "fresh world of ideals" is a political act; the creation of a world is inherently political. But such a world cannot be sustained, if it continues to instantiate such a profound disregard for epistemologies that do not share in the logocentric assumptions of the dominant Abrahamic religions.

Finally, I want to suggest that we not be so quick to justify the Prophet’s actions above as necessary or divinely inspired. By apologizing for them, we create a direct connection to imagining and modeling the type of world we want to create, support and live in. If we as scholars of Islam want to challenge the rhetoric of ISIS and Salafism, if we want to imagine a world where we create enough room for “other ways of knowing”, for traditions which challenge the narrow technocratic ways of knowing of the modern world, and its attendant domination over nature, then we cannot afford to ignore some acts of profound violence and disrespect of other ways of knowing, at the root of ‘our’ tradition. In reckoning with these acts, I think we will be led into new definitions of tawhid, in which we are not so quick to think that we know the difference between tawhid and shirk. Inshallah, that will lead us into a profound humility and care in our encounter with the religious other.


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