The dark fantasy novel "Kraken" by China Mieville starts off in a museum of natural history and describes in great detail how a giant squid preserved in formalin can appear alive in the large glass tank. The story weaves various aspects of faith, worship and mythology into the story of a mysterious theft of this giant squid that is glorified and worshipped by a group of believers in the city of London.
When I read the story, I realized that the formalin preservation of the squid itself can be a metaphor for the approach to religion. Just like living creatures are characterized by movement and change, so is a living faith. For a religion to be alive, it needs to self-renew and change, adapt and move. However, believers sometimes focus on preserving and glorifying their religion and religious traditions while neglecting the importance of change, growth and self-renewal. This desire to preserve and glorify can turn a religion into something that is reminiscent of relics and fossils, items that one stares at from behind a glass pane without touching and shaping them.
I was reminded of the Kraken metaphor for religion during this past week-end at the annual ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) convention, one of the largest conventions for Muslims in the United States. I avoided the ISNA convention in past years because when I attended it a number of years ago, I had been disappointed by the lopsidedness of the event. Most presentations had focused on extolling the virtues and greatness of Muslim faith, culture and history, but there had been few, if any, critical lectures and discussions. This past week-end, I was asked to participate in an informal discussion to help define the American Muslim identity and I accepted the invitation, since I am interested in differences between the American and European Muslim identities.
I arrived early, and I decided to take a stroll in the ISNA bazaar, looking at the booths which were displaying books for sale. The prominently displayed books were those which highlighted the beauty of Islam, the importance of Muslim culture and Muslim traditions. Notably absent were recent books that have raised some critical questions about traditional Muslim culture and interpretations of scripture, such as Amina Wadud's critique of the patriarchal readings of the Quran ("Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam"), Leila Ahmed's discussion of the resurgence of the hijab ("A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America"), the critical autobiographical memoir by Michael Muhammad Knight ("Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America") or the landmark analysis by Kecia Ali ("Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith and Jurisprudence"). Perhaps these books were there, just not in plain sight. However, these critical voices are the most important ones that ought to be promoted.
When I thumbed through the program, I found that the sessions again centered on the traditional narratives of Islam. There were definitely some new aspects in the convention program when compared to a few years ago, such as an increased emphasis on interfaith dialogue, the discussion of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter and the frequent mention of the word "Islamophobia." But the overall message was still that of exaggerated positivity, presenting a "shiny happy people" version of the faith.
The sessions about prejudice focused on anti-Muslim prejudice, but there were no sessions to discuss the fact that Muslim communities in the USA can also be perpetrators of forms of prejudice such as homophobia.
There was a session on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, but based on its description in the program, it centered on highlighting the parallels and not how Muslims can help overcome anti-semitic tendencies found within Muslim communities.
Even though the convention center was buzzing with activity, I was reminded of the Kraken novel and its metaphor of the formalin fixed squid. It seemed that at the ISNA convention, traditional interpretations of the Muslim faith were still being preserved and glorified, and I therefore decided not to attend any of the formal ISNA sessions.
The Muslim faith is not the only faith in America in which preservation and glorification of traditional faith narratives is emphasized over newer critical and dissenting narratives that could lead to change and self-renewal. Some of my Christian friends also struggle to embrace change and recent interpretations in matters of faith. The desire to preserve and glorify faith is understandable, but when this desire becomes the central goal of how to approach faith, it creates a lifeless version of the faith that is better suited for a museum.
Perhaps it is the missionary zeal that is found in both Islam and Christianity or perhaps it is the need to cling on to something familiar in a world that consists of constantly evolving and changing technological and sociopolitical environments that encourages the "museum approach." However, the obsession with tradition ultimately weakens the faith, since true strength comes from encouraging criticism and dissent, as they set the stage for the much needed self-renewal and change.