A boy was intent on personalising his brand-new electronic device, a smartphone of the latest generation. Since he was religious, he did not forget to download the Quran, among other things that best reflected his personality, onto the phone.
During the downloading process, however, he headed towards the bathroom, though not until he had stopped the download. In the middle of his way there, he stopped. Could he enter the bathroom with his smartphone, now that it carried the Quran? Wouldn’t that be a violation of the Sacred Book?
The boy submitted a question to one of the many social-networking sites now offering fatwas, or Islamic legal rulings. He asked a virtual authority to promulgate a fatwa for him, which could save him from the abyss that had suddenly opened up in front of him.
Until 50 or so years ago, general fatwas were a vital necessity in societies in which illiteracy rates could exceed three-quarters of the population. The lack of technology at that time forced illiterate people to judge by themselves all affairs of daily life.
Travelling to urban centres was expensive and took a long time. Therefore, everyone had to formulate his own judgements to satisfy his conscience and, consequently, God.
Today, modern means of communication allow everybody to obtain fatwas answering their own special cases. There is no need to think, ponder and argue any more as a result. Modernity has provided a technology that has disentangled religion from such forms of individual rationality.
A fatwa can be requested at any moment, in any place and on any subject, no matter how specific it might be to the requester.
However, this contradicts one of Islam’s most distinguishing characteristics — the absence of clergy mediating between man and God, together with the principle that says “consult your heart, even when you are given a legal opinion.” The heart of the individual is the ultimate authority in judging human actions.
The boy hesitating on the bathroom threshold was neither illiterate nor resource-less. He was the son of a culture in which religion, turned into ideology, has triumphed, seemingly destroying any possibility of practicing religion individually.
At the same time, he lives according to the dictates of a Western world in which religion has been mostly set aside at the price of excluding it from public life such that it has ceased to produce meaning at the personal and collective level.
The worst defeat religion can experience is its being transformed into an ideology. If this happens, it does not matter if it triumphs or if it is defeated as in either case the first victim will be the person concerned.
Giving up the responsibility of thinking for oneself by acting as mere mediators either between east and west, or between the past, the fathers and the ancestors and the present and the sons, has led some societies to forms of exclusion.
Extremists, whether modernist or traditionalist, exclude the different, whereas moderates, whether modernist or traditionalist, exclude diversity, blurring the differences between dissimilar stances to avoid clashes.
Such contradictions become more complex in the case of Muslim immigrants to European societies, where the identity crisis and the meaning-production crisis are as acute and as serious as they are in Arab-Islamic societies.
At a time of postmodern globalisation, a time of fragmented and artificial identities, the Europeans are constantly escaping from their past, whereas the Arabs are constantly escaping towards theirs.
Two world wars have left deep wounds on the European consciousness, so that any attempt to generate, or define, a meaning for life, the individual, society or history is seen as an exclusion, something that is paradoxically itself threatening to pluralism.
The “grand narratives” of religion and different ideologies have fallen in Europe today. Instead, each person is responsible for creating his own “small narrative,” even if this does not make any space for the other as this would imply a loss of legitimacy and its own impermanence.
Such small narratives leave nothing behind them apart from smiling or frowning icons on Facebook. Every human quality is turned into signs that prevent such small narratives from becoming grander ones, making all of us the prisoners of endlessly reiterated models.
In the Arab-Islamic world, colonialism and its consequences, including political, economic and political subordination, have left a deep wound in the Arab consciousness to the extent that attempts to generate meaning for life, the individual, society or history too often are seen as a reaffirmation of Arab humiliation.
The preservation of Arab purity is seen as the only possible way of washing away the shame of love for the oppressor and his imitation. Pure origins have become the grand narrative that swallows up small narratives in the Arab world and forbid any possibility of generating meaning.
How can new meaning be generated if all practices are the eternal repetition of an ideal origin transcending reality and history?
Western society today resembles a man that has decided to castrate himself because he does not want to have an evil son, whereas Arab society is like a man who kills his sons because they do not resemble an ancestor he has never known.
The first man lies to himself by saying that he does not need sons and does not care about the future.
The second man lies to himself by saying that forcing his sons to resemble an unknown ancestor will reverse the course of history.
The first man lies to others because he tries to convince them that his noble values have no origin and no history.
The second man lies to others because he tries to convince them that his noble values are still alive and are not only a mask hiding his own moral decay and human decadence. While Western reason cuts its ties with the future by deriding and deconstructing the past, Arab reason struggles to move towards the future with its back turned and its look fixed on the past, as if this were the only guarantee of not losing one’s way forward.
However, the fundamental guarantee for a dignified human life is to rebuild a culture that is capable of producing meaning, for there is no true separation between culture and life. Life manifests itself in culture and is complementary to it.
Similarly, culture can manifest itself only as life and inside the deepest meanings of life. Consequently, any negation of culture necessarily implies the negation of life itself.
The site eventually replied to the boy, still suspended between his smartphone and the bathroom, with another question.
“Did you memorise anything from the Quran?” “Yes,” the boy replied in surprise.
The site then pronounced its fatwa: the boy had to leave both his smartphone and his head outside the bathroom.
The writer is a professor at the Catholic University of Milan and author of Conflicting Arab Identities: Language, Tradition and Modernity.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly