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The Danger of Hagiography as History

But when history turns into hagiography, rooting out zealotry can be a difficult task

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The Danger of Hagiography as History
The entrance to the Great Mosque in Karbala, Iraq / 1932 / Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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If you studied Islam at a young age in school or learned about the early history of the faith during the Prophet’s time and the era of the first four caliphs (632–662 CE) from mosque imams or the audiotapes of popular preachers, you were not studying history. You were studying mythology.

I grew up across from a neighborhood mosque, and I remember frequenting it with my father and grandfather for daily and Friday prayers from the age of 5. I fasted for a day during Ramadan when I was 7 (out of my own volition) and by the time I was 9 I was fasting for the entirety of the holy month. I didn’t feel attached to the religious significance of these rituals, however, until I was in my early teens. I found myself awake one day at 4 a.m., listening to the dawn prayer’s call. I quietly went down to the mosque. It was the first time I had experienced the serenity of the ritual before sunrise, and I was enchanted.

The religiosity that followed was very much in the vein of what one would call today Salafism, not to be confused with the militant Salafi-jihadism. It was mired in pointless minutiae like wearing jalabiyas that had to be at ankle length because anything longer was considered prideful (never mind that everyone I knew was wearing jeans and none, as far as I could tell, were prelates waltzing around in overflowing robes), no music and an obsession with end-times prophecies. I outgrew that phase gradually by the time I entered university.

The 2000s was an era of popular televangelists who also offered very engrossing cassette tape series. One of them, Tariq al-Suwaidan, was a master storyteller and prolific lecturer who produced several fascinating series on early Islam. The cassette tapes, which I listened to incessantly on my Walkman (Google it, Zoomers), came in beautiful jackets that looked like illustrated hardcovers and covered the story of the Prophet, the revelation, his life and death. A subsequent series covered the history of the venerated first four caliphs (others I listened to were on the history of Jerusalem and the Islamic era in Spain).

The tricky thing about telling the story of the caliphal age is that the third caliph, Othman, was murdered in the course of a rebellion that was partly triggered by accusations of nepotism. His savage assassination was followed by a civil war in which thousands of Muslims, including some of the Prophet’s companions, died, fighting on opposite sides, over the two questions of avenging Othman and who should rule over the burgeoning empire. That conflict planted the seeds of the Sunni-Shia schism. But most mainstream evangelists portray the Prophet’s companions as saints nearly incapable of acting out of self-interest. All their actions, no matter the cost in civil strife and destruction, were because they thought they were acting for the good of the Ummah, seeking divine favor. Mythology, not history.

This is why a particular line, in a fascinating profile we published this week by Tam Hussein, one of our contributing editors, resonated deeply with me. Hussein was writing about Talha Ahsan, a Briton who immersed himself in jihadist ideology and rubbed shoulders with some of that world’s most prominent figures and ideologues. Although he also became disenchanted with the moral vacuity of their theology, he nevertheless spent some time in British and American maximum-security prisons for his involvement. He now hosts a podcast on Abbasid history and is working on his Ph.D. at the prestigious SOAS University of London.

“It sometimes feels that the modern Muslim’s relationship with the past is hagiographic,” Ahsan says. The right way forward, in his eyes, is “history, not hagiography.”

Ahsan’s story is fascinating because, in his travels, he encounters some of the most influential figures in the jihadist movement. His interest was triggered by the 1990s genocide in Bosnia and the massacres in Chechnya, two of the earliest conflicts I remember listening to adults talk about in my childhood. In Afghanistan, he meets figures like Abu Musab al-Suri, one of the progenitors of the modern jihadist movements, has tea with Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the leader of al Qaeda, and runs into Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker in the 9/11 attacks, as well as “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.

Though he pulled back from the brink, Ahsan endured years in prison and eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide and providing material support for terrorism to avoid a lengthier term if he pleaded not guilty but lost at trial. He was released in 2015 and has decided to dedicate his life to rooting out the causes of extremism by showing that Wahhabism and the fanaticism it nurtures are anathema to Islam.

In his analysis of the shoe bomber’s motivations, he says that Reid’s love of violence was a result of “the pernicious effects of Wahhabism,” not some kind of pathology. He drew a comparison between Reid’s behavior and solving a hardware problem on a computer, “meaning something’s been placed on your motherboard, which means you can never process information correctly until [it is] physically [removed].” In Reid’s case, he “went back to Islamic sources and particularly Wahhabi sources to justify these things.”

Perhaps, on his path to redemption, he will succeed in rooting out the cause of the malfunction from some malleable minds.

From this week (March 21 – March 25, 2022)

Podcast | Arabic Literature in Translation | Listen here

The Shifting Cultural Role of Clothes | Read more

Russia Fights Against Time | Read more

Exclusive: Russia Backs Europe’s Far Right | Read more

Chechnya’s Fight Club Joins Putin’s War | Read more

In Kharkiv’s Rubble, Hatred for Russia Is Strong | Read more

In South Asia, a Battle Against Taboos on Female Sexuality | Read more

Dnipro: Ukraine’s Staging Ground | Read more

Russia’s Inability to Shift Course May Doom It | Read more

The Failure of Nonviolence in Afghanistan | Read more

How an Anti-Muslim Conspiracy Thrives in the UK | Read more

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