August 15, 2004

The quiet Arabian

Posted by Curt at 10:30 PM in Literature | TrackBack

The name of Abdul al-Aziz Muq’tanil al-Zizunabayu may be unfamiliar to many, but the body of his writings deserves greater scrutiny, because to some degree they offer a solution to some of the central dilemmas of Islam in a time of greatly increased affluence, when few of the imams and ulama of the Islamic world have provided solace of a sort which can survive in the midst of material effluvia and temptation without rejecting them in the name of austerity.

al-Zizunabayu has not made more of an international name for himself in part because, perhaps, he chose an inauspicious time and set of circumstances in which to be exiled. He originally served as an imam and schoolteacher in Islamic studies in provincial Syria, but was exiled in the mid 1980s. He might have attracted a great deal of attention had his crimes included speaking out against Syrian participation in the Lebanese conflict or at least agitation over democratic reforms, but instead he left under a cloud of codemnation for impurity and immoral pedagogical practices, with dark insinuations on the part of the religious authorities made about his moral and spiritual corruption and possible homosexuality, insinuations, however, which for the most part escaped translation into Western languages.

What really has shaken the miniscule community of emigré Muslim scholars and religious authorities in London, Boston and New York who have responded to his subsequent writings, however, is his attitude to his disgrace and exile, a disgrace unleavened by any redemptory intimations of political martyrdom. But instead of rejecting the charges against him, or repenting of his conduct either privately or publicly, or even abandoning Islam or challenging the religious authorities, al-Zizunabayu has appeared to glory in his own conduct, while continuing to uphold evangelistic Islam, even Islam by the sword. In fact, he goes so far as to say in his Qu’ranic commentary Under the Qu’ranic Tree, a commentary, by the way, almost unprecedented in the extent to which it indulges in personal confession to the point of virtually abandoning accepted forms of scriptural interpretation: “My impurity has in fact been the greatest sacrifice I could have made to future warriors of the faith (mujahideen). I have not undertaken to hoard virtue for myself in the slightest. Just as al-Muwahardi tells us the gift of a loaf of bread to a poor man is that much greater if I deny bread to myself, so have I made my mission to spread the faith and the hope of grace without, however, extending it to myself.”

It almost goes without stating that one encounters but rarely a parallel to the bodhisattva tradition in Islam, the idea of religious virtue as a divideable substance rather than a unitary whole, which can be fostered in another without accruing to oneself, indeed at one’s own expense. But al-Zizunabayu goes further. In his work The Inner Caliphate, he writes: “My own decadence has brought me material pleasures for a day, but my conduct and the rot that it brings forth inspires my students with abhorrence and pushes them down the path of righteousness that my words and teaching has already suggested to them.”

Perhaps this is another reason that al-Zizunabayu has attracted little attention in the West and little response among Islamic scholars other than bafflement at his apparent insanity. For his behavior, intended as it apparently is to violate specifically Islamic standards of conduct, generally provokes little censure in the West, and his notion of virtue is so repellant to most Muslims that it might as well be known as jahiliyya. But his words bespeak but very little of derangement. In A Call to the Faithful, he writes: “An invocation, a call to virtue can only be freed from the illegitimate influence of considerations of authority by the incineration of the reputation of the bearer of the message, so that from the ashes of himself he can call forth the words which can by their purity alone inspire the believer to good deeds and good faith.”

The influence of tradition is at least disputable, but this principle seems to contain the possibility of the nearly infinite transmissability of righteousness. In a life seemingly undistinguished by holiness, and rather plentiful in hypocrisy, al-Zizunabayu would seem to have wrought a veritable revolution in embryonic form, which stands a fair chance of winning back through forgiveness that which was lost by vice.

p.s. One other relation in which the concept of virtue as divideable and finite often appears is the love affair. It is not always mere fatuousness when girls say earnestly, as they sometimes do, “you’re too good to me.”