Between idealism and realism: rebalancing the Muslim mindset
The unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection and ideal state—‘idealism’—gives human beings motivation and courage. But, without ‘realism’—being true to life—it can, and so often does, turn into false hope, cynicism and sometimes even a blame culture. It seems, our perceived and real lack of control of modernity’s rapid changes has a tendency for idealism at the expense of realism. Yet, for the sincere believer, the strain between idealism and realism is a struggle to, on one hand, defend the truth no matter how unpopular it may be, and on the other hand, embracing the right ‘attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly.’ Far from being a nascent, so-called, post-modernist reflection, this balancing of idealism by realism has always had a deep intellectual wisdom in Islamic scholarship.
We might expect an idealist to look at things as they ought to be, whereas a realist might look at things as they are actually experienced. While an idealist may not be satisfied until they see reality achieve its optimal state, a realist may be content with the most pragmatic state. Idealists might argue that colonialism, for example, should never have occurred; a realist might argue that it was inevitable since human beings have always vied to dominate one another. An idealist might advocate a class-less society, but a realist might opine that human societies—even the Prophetic Madinan society—have always resisted a kind of sameness between people where meritocracy didn’t matter.
The implications of such outlook are immense. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we might become fixed to seeing the world in all its flaws versus seeing the world through its inherent restlessness made of good, bad and mundane experiences. It is true that we imagine and represent things in our minds, and in doing so form perceptions of things often in a highly-personalised way. The possibility of such intimate realisation however diverse it might be can only be a mercy from God. But such perceptions are altogether another thing when we seek to project them to everyone else in the world as ‘the ideal.’
It’s hard to find idealism as a mode of normative thinking in Muslim civilization. Human beings could not be made into a single sort of being, which God actually rebukes.[i] Muslim societies, thus, tended to express universality as a plurality of cultures, ideas and peoples. The Madinan society of the Prophet, for example, was forged on alliances between people of different religions, tribes, social and economic standing and immigrants.
Yet, the realist in me tells me that the dominant motivity in Muslim discourses today is idealism. In Islamic concepts, like ‘ummah,’ for example, we idealise it as a consciously homogeneous community where faith alone is operative, which we then project as authentic today. Premised on this kind of idealism, it is often the case that for anyone differing on a matter of politics or social policy, or theology even, they face being castigated for apparently breaking ‘unity’ or deviating from an apparent ‘original Sunnah.’ But we know, the diversity of races, languages, cultures, grades of knowledge, class and ideas is well-recognised existential reality in the Qur’an and Prophetic examples. The Companions, as bearers of Prophetic Sunnah par excellence, too, differed on many matters and grappled with the challenges and opportunities of being human.
Another common idealism is that of the so-called ‘political Islam,’ which is common to violent groups, and more often than not post-colonial ‘Islamic political parties’ and modern ‘non-violent caliphites.’ What you see among them is an idealist view of history, where an idealised ‘political Islam’ becomes the hubris of the ‘zero point,’ the untouchable memory – one that, if you go against you may well be seen as a ‘sell out,’ ‘apologist,’ or ‘modernist.’ Many struggle to see this for what it is, and perpetuate post-colonial reactions that take little account of vastly different processes underway today.
Idealism in juristic school-based institutions is also quite prevalent. Fixing historical texts into todays contexts in matters of ambiguity (thanni) seems a far cry to the kind of observations made by the tenth century Geographer, Al-Muqaddasi (945/6-991). He recalls a level of realism that, at times, led scholars in the tenth century to present ‘their opinions, advancing on one point, then retreating; granting, as it were, then contradicting; allowing, then disallowing; permitting, then forbidding – and people have accepted this, and have been satisfied with it, and no intelligent person has denied them the right to do this.’[ii]
Sadly, idealism in this area has convinced many Muslims that Divine revelation offers answers to life’s changing circumstances without having to make sense of, and strive with, the external environment and our own inner space. Ironically, it’s become automatic for many to approach sacred texts as remote and ‘untouchable’ due to their very sacredness. And on a macro level, too, today’s sectarian identity politics is partly a reflection of this kind of inflexibility and ‘crisis of intellect.’
From what I can see, idealism is a subjective notion in the Islamic paradigm. Not least because it varies between people, in both space and time. There are many Prophetic examples that bespeak of the Companions being taught about the actual nature of the world.[iii] To experience and represent things in ‘ideal’ form, or as they might or should be is quite simply the effort of striving to act out of awe of God (taqwa), sincerity (ikhlas) and applying one’s best discretion (ihsan). And even so, whilst there may be signs in one’s behaviour, one doesn’t know for certainty if one’s actions have been accepted by God. The Islamic paradigm, seems therefore to maintain human beings as wavering around ‘non-ideal’ positions.
Idealism can quite easily lead to psychopathic, hard-nosed, over-confident positions. Often concealing the real nature and features of our existential experiences. In turn, pushing the line of thinking that circumstances beyond our own spaces and contexts are the real drivers for moving things forward, to improve conditions and so on. But, this is a kind of false lure that we must check using the very existential reality that idealism seeks to obscure.
by Mamnun Khan