Thursday, August 25, 2005

Going back to the Meccan well....   posted by Razib @ 8/25/2005 04:48:00 PM

I have been reading some chapters of A History of Islamic Societies recently, and I noticed something interesting. But first some context. I have read a lot about the dynamics of Indonesian, in particular Javanese, society for many years. The reason is that on this island of 100 million you have a nominally Muslim society which expresses the full range of Islam from "orthodox" Arabicized practice and belief (the urban reformist santri) to nominal Muslims whose practice is so close to Indonesian Hinduism1 that since the 1960s many of them have been switching to that religion. Until recently my conception of the emergence of a urban literate santri was that it was an inevitable result of a closer reading of the source texts and traditions of Islam, the Koran and the Hadiths. In other words, santri Muslims were simply more Muslim than the typical Javanese Muslim (an increase in the magnitude of the same vector).

But, as some know, I have also expressed skepticism at too close of a reliance on texts as determinative on the pathway of social and cultural development. In the chapters in the above book on 19th century Indian Islam I noted something interesting: reformist neo-orthodox movements are repeatedly attributed to hajjiis, those who made the pilgrimage to Mecca, in particular those who had resided in the city for long periods of time. The prestige that they attained upon their return resulted in their initiation of "reforms" to bring local practices (often loosely classified as "Sufi") into line with Meccan norms. The same "reforms" were initiated by Hui who had returned from Mecca. And sure enough, the chapter on Southeast Asian Islam notes that the modernist reformist Muslims who rose to challenge the traditional expressions of Javanese Islam were also inspired by movements founded by hajjiis!

In The Meme Machine Susan Blackmore characterizes some individuals as "meme fountains." It seems clear to me that the hajjiis were operating as meme fountains when they returned from Arabia and the sacred physical heart of Islam, Mecca. The practices of Meccan Islam are in some ways unchallengeably normative, and so the hajjiis had the moral authority to "reform" local practices which deviated from the Meccan norm. Richard Dawkins explained the neo-memetic ideas of Blackmore in part as fidelity to an original source which was abstracted and converted into clear heuristics so as to make errors unbiased (and so non-progressive). The original template served to anchor propogated ideas and practices which did not replicate duplication errors. The standard model promoted by many is that the Koran and Hadiths serve as that template. I dissent from this view because my own reading of cognitive science suggests that religious texts are easily warped and distorted by "learned consensus" or personal self-interest. They do not exhibit the transparent inferential characteristics of mathematical axioms, ergo, the often strained verbal gymnastics of the religious "sciences." Rather, I am suggesting that the template is more likely to be the norms espoused by the Muslims of Mecca.

This has an implications: the hajj is far more common today than it was in the past. There are millions of hajjiis every year (the Saudi government even has to limit it). In synergy with communication technologies that implies that the number of meme fountains might be far greater than in the past (though the more mundane nature of the hajj because of modern transporation might mitigate the influence of hajjiis). Efforts to tailor or accommodate Islam to local norms must be balanced against the conformist tendencies of the meme fountain generator that is Mecca. Additionally, the character of Meccan Islam is partly dictated by the Saudi state, which frowns upon non-Wahhabi or Salafist practices (though Meccan Muslims resist the Saudi orthodoxy).

In the past the Dar-al-Islam was an idea that appealed to elites, for only elites were literate and practiced an Islam which was characterized by punctilious adherence to the norms of sharia (this is more true of the non-Arab world). Today many regions of the Muslim world are modernizing (eg; Malaysia) and literacy and access to source texts is spreading. With it is an attempt to generate a common set of Islamic norms. But I think it is important not to neglect the physical presence of hajjiis throughout the Muslim world and their direct experience and understanding of how Islam is practiced in the city of Muhammed. It is often said that Malcom X's encounter with blue-eyed Muslims in Mecca was relevatory for him, and changed his understanding of what Islam is. I suspect that this is but the tip of the iceberg of what is going on, and any attempt to understand how Islam is developing needs to include an ethnography of the hajjiis.

1 - Indonesian Hinduism, typified by the religious practices of Bali, is not the same as Indian Hinduism, ergo, the qualifier. The Balinese are not the only Indonesian Hindus, there remained through the Muslim period communities of identified Hindus in Java, especially in the eastern regions and in the highlands. Since 1965 there has been a trend for heterodox religious movements and individuals to give their affiliation as Hindu to avoid religious persecution (the national ideology demands that citizens be a member of one of the major religious groups, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or Hinduism). Some of these groups are close to being Hindu in name only.