Speaking Truth to Power Is An Islamic Responsibility: Decolonial Thinking in Al-Andalus

Granada is renowned as the last stronghold of Andalusian Muslims before the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition descended on the entire peninsula and drove them out. It is the inspiration of teary poets reminiscing of the bygone Golden Age of the Muslim ummah, and the site of political nostalgia among Muslim nationalists. Recently, it has also become a center of epistemic resistance among people from around the world and across different faith groups, nationalities and academic disciplines.

A program called Critical Muslim Studies (CMS), an intensive two-week summer school, convened there in early June with activists, intellectuals and professors who specialize in liberation theology and believe in utilizing religion and spirituality to achieve political justice. Roberto Hernandez — a Latino professor and activist, who had been involved in the Berkeley student strike of 1999 when students took to the streets because the university was disbanding the Ethnic Studies department — was the director of this program.

The Critical Muslim Studies program took place in the old Arab neighborhood of Al-Baizin in Spain. (photo by Iman Sultan)

The Critical Muslim Studies program took place in the old Arab neighborhood of Al-Baizin in Spain.

The location proved key. Ramon Grosfoguel, an ethnic studies professor and critical scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, explained why we were in Granada. The historical city was not only the last outpost of Muslim civilization in Spain, it was the first victim of colonial modernity that was about to sweep the world, and which the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella were forging.  The same tactics used in the Inquisition, he explained, were used in the conquest of the Americas and and in the genocide of indigenous and African peoples. Current-day Granada is fraught with this history and divisive consciousness. Near Plaza Nueva, a public square filled with restaurants and shops, a gigantic statue of Columbus kneeling at Isabella’s feet and giving her his plans for conquest rises into the sky with the beacon of the Alhambra gleaming on the horizon.

Grosfoguel postulated that the Muslim conquest of Iberia was in fact not a conquest, but a liberation. In the 8th century, Spain did not exist as we know it today, but constituted different languages and peoples. The Iberian people were primarily Unitarian Christians and Jews, suffering under the boot of foreign Visigothic rule. An army of 8,000 Muslims (at the most) defeated an army of 150,000 Visigoths in only three years, a seemingly impossible feat. What enabled the Muslims to triumph? The answer lay in the people. The inhabitants of Iberia had not only joined the incoming Muslim armies in liberating themselves, they had also appealed to Morocco several times for help. What resulted? Interfaith relations flourished and there was unity amongst these Mediterranean peoples. The invisible line in the Mediterranean Sea between Europe and Africa, West and East, did not exist at the time, but only appeared with The Inquisition and the advent of colonialism.

(In current-day Andalusia, this history is repressed, but not forgotten. Many Spanish people are reverting, discovering their own Muslim history – that their Muslim ancestors (moriscos) had been forcibly converted to Christianity. )

Grosfoguel, himself Puerto Rican, linked what happened in Granada to the conquest of the Americas. “Latin America began in Granada,” he said. Its history is not in isolation.

Group tours to the Alhambra palace were told from an Islamic perspective.

1492 marked the beginning of this colonial project. With the dawn of “modernity,” Muslims were displaced as Europe re-constructed itself and designated them as ‘Other’ and a threat.

When the Spanish and Portuguese colonists discovered what they called the New World, they branded the indigenous non-Christian Taino people as not having a soul, thus seeing them as less than human and part of another race. Similarly, Africans were associated with Muslims or ‘Moors’ in the Western imaginary (whether they were Muslim or not), and their enslavement initiated biological racism. Just as The Inquisition influenced the conquest of the Americas, the colonization of the Americas affected the Spanish monarchy’s treatment of forcibly converted Muslims and Jews in Europe.

The point of contestation went beyond the religious identity of the moriscos and marranos, to their very humanity. The notion of Taino people lacking a soul (because they were not Christian) irrevocably impacted Iberian Muslims and Jews, who were then seen as not merely non-Christian, but soul-less as well. Conversion, previously the key to integration, didn’t really work to integrate Jews and Muslims in Europe, but marked the inception of Islamophobia and anti-Semitsim. They were surveilled and repressed for generations.

My biggest take-away from the summer program was the importance of understanding that knowledge and education as we know it was shaped primarily by the colonialist West and perpetuated by the Westernized university, and that we must, therefore, decolonize the mind.

The professors at CMS endeavored to shine a light on the role of spirituality and religion in producing knowledge and ways of understanding that are often discredited in the Western university — discredited because they are believed to clash with the secularism and modernity promoted by a Western and Christian-centric epistemology. CMS’ collaboration with the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE), led by Tariq Ramadan, brought Islamic knowledge to the fore.

Tariq Ramadan began his lecture by affirming that everything was political, whether we liked it or not. “But how do we deal with power?” he asked. In order to deal with power, initiative must come from within the Muslim community, he said. We must use an Islamic frame of reference as our point of departure. Freeing the ego, or the heart, must be the initiation of any political project of liberation and progress, he said. Ramadan also insisted that politics were not disembodied from culture, and that it’s imperative for Muslims themselves to work on transforming civil society and revolutionizing education, community programs, and youth engagement if we want to improve the future of Muslims.

Hatem Bazian, founder of Zaytuna College and American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), spoke on pre-modern Islamic knowledge and thinking. He explained that educational structures imposed by Western colonialism destroyed Muslim societies, exemplified in how the infrastructure of Al-Azhar (an Islamic university of higher learning in Egypt) was changed by British rule. Throughout the Muslim world, Islamic languages like Urdu, Farsi, and Arabic were uprooted by Western languages like English and French, rendering past scholarship and religious texts inaccessible to incoming generations. Multilingual societies degenerated as the colonial language was prioritized at the expense of other languages. “Nothing we see as Muslims is untouched by Eurocentricism,” Bazian, who lectures at UC Berkeley, concluded.

Activists against Islamophobia from Europe also participated in the summer school. Houria Bouteldja, a French Algerian Muslim activist and co-founder of the Party for the Indigenous of the Republic (PIR), a decolonial organization that battles racism and Islamophobia in France, spoke about the role of Muslims in the recent wave of antisemitism in France, particularly in the context of the pro-Palestine protests in 2014, which were banned by the government in a direct affront to freedom of speech.

According to Bouteldja, the French state instrumentalizes Jewish people against other minorities, not unlike the French colonial empire’s past usage of Senegalese foot soldiers in colonizing myriad parts of Africa; horrified by the destruction of their homes, Moroccans and Malagasy people alike began to see their oppressor as Senegalese. In the end, she explained, French imperialism and racism diverted the blame onto their chosen scapegoat to better conceal the ills of their own culture and society.

Dew Baboeram, a Dutch Surinamese activist, spoke about the necessity of solidarity, love and mutual respect in organizing against oppression, and specifically about the intersection of the pro-Palestine and Black solidarity movements in the Netherlands. For Baboeram, communities ravaged by white supremacy and colonialism need love and humility to rebuild, and require connecting with different people and stepping out of insular comfort zones.

There are similarities to be found between the radical politics of European antiracist activists and a similar movement within the American Muslim community to stand with their African-American brethren and their supporters in a nationwide movement against police brutality against black people and anti-black racism — though there has been some internal dissent within the American Muslim community as to how the community can best do this.

We must struggle for solidarity and respect if we want to serve our communities and progress into the future.

Every speaker, professor and activist emphasized the importance of civic responsibility, and the necessity to improve society by strengthening our communities and building bridges with communities who share our struggles. There is an Islamic responsibility to speak truth to power as a way to practice our religion, and this lies at the heart of Islam itself.

Tawhid,” Grosfoguel explained, “is a powerful way of epistemically thinking. It says that because you are not God, you are submitted to critique.”

This article originally appeared in ISLAMiCommentary.

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