The problem with Vernacular Islam

Nayla Majestya

In contemporary public discourse on Islam, the emergence of revisionist approaches is widely noticeable. Historically speaking, within the intellectual tradition of Islamic theology, the efforts to change Islamic principles has been well-documented and well-countered. The writings of classical Islamic ulama like Ibn Taymiyyah and Al-Ghazali have provided ample counter-arguments to theologically-deviated propositions. However, every generation claims to face specific cultural problems that need specific solutions. 

In our age, the rise of scepticism towards theological authority in defining Islam can be argued as a result of an ideological conditioning born from a certain cultural climate termed the post-truth era. Post-truth is sometimes posited as a social and political condition whereby people no longer respect truth but simply accept as true what they believe or feel[1]. But, fundamentally, the term actually refers to a breakdown of social trust in truth-telling authorities, like the mainstream news media. What is then accepted as popular truth is a really weak form of knowledge: an opinion based on trust in those who are allegedly informed.

In the contemporary Muslim vernacular, we see the peak manifestation of this breakdown of social trust in authorities in the popularisation of anti-clerical sentiments. This is the publicly expressed act of Muslims seeking non-scholarly perspective to scrutinise Islam. We see this on many fronts: from Muslims endorsing gender-equality affirmative interpretations of Islam, to those insisting on inherently violent and dangerous interpretations of Islam from the Arabic worlds; from campaigns that presents Islamic beliefs as accommodating of controversial political agendas, to Muslims insisting that the ‘there is no absolute truth’ and Islam is one path among many. 

At the core of this phenomenon is a belief in how authenticity is established and knowledge is defined. Confusion on these issues is being used to foment a radical scepticism towards the idea that Islam constitutes true knowledge, and pave the way for its reform. 

The Authenticity Project

Amongst various public expressions of the Islamic revisionist approach, there is a trend of using the term ‘vernacular Islam’ to justify the use of empirical knowledge in defining Islam. Vernacular Islam is a term used to refer to ‘Islam in practice’ or the act of defining religion as the way Muslims live in its specific cultural-social conditions, as opposed to ‘Islam as it ought to be’ or a divine guidance of the ideal way of living as Muslims[2]. The term vernacular Islam claims to provide a more inclusive approach in defining Islam as an encounter between Islamic tenets (the universality of Islam) and ‘folk Islam’ (the cultural specificity of Muslims).

Vernacular religion has been well accepted in academia, particularly in the fields of anthropology and religious studies. Most of the studies have been used to highlight the diverse beliefs and practices within the faith communities, thus rejecting the concept of orthodoxy. The use of the term ‘vernacular’ signifies the analogy of language, differentiating vernacular religion from the theological-scriptural concept of religion. In linguistics, the vernacular is associated with spoken dialects or the common, everyday language of ordinary people in a given locality. The vernacular may be juxtaposed with a main language that is shared across geographic boundaries or locales. The relationship between Qur’anic Arabic (fusha) and spoken Arabic dialects is probably useful to illustrate the difference between theological Islam and vernacular Islam.

Yet there is a fundamental difference in defining Islam as ‘Islam in practice’ and Islam as a belief system. The main tension comes from the different ontological stances in defining authenticity. Vernacular Islam is based in beliefs of how Islam ‘really is’ on the ground, as a lived experience for Muslims from multicultural backgrounds. Thus, fundamentally, the observed phenomenon is not Islam, but Muslims. By contrast, authentic teachings in Islam derive from an ontological belief of Islam as a revelation-based belief system and the process of authorisation of sources, namely the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam as a theological-scriptural tradition ties its authenticity to the legitimacy of its source of knowledge and the methodology of derivation. 

Rather than directly opposing the definition of a belief system, Vernacular Islam tries to paint Islam as something that needs to be empirically confirmed. This frames the core of Islam as a culture, rather than a creed. Once people have accepted that Islam is a culture, people will easily digest the idea that everything about Islam is ‘contextual’, hence it can be reformed to accommodate the political project of l’ideologie-en-vogue at any given moment in history as long as one can contextualize it. 

Islam as True Knowledge

The resistance towards accepting Islam as a belief system does not only come from external trends like vernacular Islam, but also stems from an internal doubt plaguing modern Muslims. Underlying this internal doubt is a radical scepticism towards the proof of Islam as a true and rational body of knowledge that does not need to be empirically confirmed. 

The impulse to dismiss any kind of knowledge derived from non-empirical methods is due to materialist assumptions that form the basis of modern-science. This has been coupled with the recent trend of ‘quantifying everything’ in secular academia. But faith is ontologically a metaphysical matter, so the proposition that Islam is true can be understood better through philosophical evidence, rather than scientific proofs.

Hamza Karamali provides a good summary of the philosophical argument that presents Islam as true knowledge. Rather than defining Islam as simply a confession of faith, a struggle for peace and justice, and what Muslims believe and do, Karamali explains that fundamentally Islam is,

the claim that God created the universe, put us in it for a great purpose, and sent us messengers to tell us our purpose, so that we might gain eternal happiness in our life after death.[3]

Many religious doctrines, including Islam, have been rejected on the basis that one needs the evidence of the said propositions to accept it as true. Some call belief in God a circular argument, a logical fallacy. However, this is an informal-logical argument. In formal logic, circular arguments are considered valid.        

Consider the following two assumptions in determining a rational argument:

  1. Validity Assumption: Assume an argument is valid when it follows all the formal logical rules of inference and the inference contains no formal logical fallacy.
  2. Soundness Assumption: Assume the premises of the argument are sound when they are verified by a competent subject-matter expert. 

An assumption can be valid once we accept the logical rules of inference and the inference shows no logical inconsistency. However, to establish the soundness of an assumption, we do not have the same level of certainty. The expert verifying the premises as true may have made an error of judgment, a political agenda or even a personal bias. Thus, in terms of reliability, the valid status is effectively better than the sound status of an assumption, since it can be checked without involving human judgement.

This does not mean that establishing Islamic doctrines is as straightforward as establishing validity. However, the claim of Islam as true knowledge can be easily validated through deductive logic once we accept Islamic theological axioms as the formal logical rule of inference. Muslims’ basic belief in God, in Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as the last messenger of God, in angels, in revealed scriptures, in the Day of Judgement, and in divine decree are all Islamic theological axioms. These beliefs do not rely on anything in order to be valid and they cannot be proven by any more basic premises. A true axiom cannot be refuted because to do that, one needs that very axiom as a premise. Axiom by definition is self-evident since any attempt to contradict it can only end in a contradiction.

But is deductive logic the only rational way to explain Islam as true knowledge? How can people understand the claim that ‘Islam is true’, that Islam has a real epistemology, rather than Muslims making things up? Reformed Epistemology (RE) can shed light on an existing alternative framework of epistemology that is also compatible with Islamic theological epistemology[4]. RE rejects the evidentialist objection to theism which demands that our belief in God needs a proof that God exist in the first place. In contrary, RE views that belief in God can be justified without recourse to propositional evidence. 

Alvin Plantinga, the prime proponent of RE, has argued that theistic belief can be properly basic with respect to ‘warrant’. A belief can result from external factors to the believer’s consciousness (family upbringing, cultural influence, social pressure) and still be warranted. This concept is called proper functionalism. Plantinga uses the term ‘warrant’ to refer to “that quantity, enough of which is what distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief”. A certain belief can have warrant if, and only if, it is formed by properly functioning cognitive faculties that are aimed at the production of true belief in compatible environments. 

In Islamic consciousness, RE is a useful framework to explain fitrah as the designed cognitive faculties which God has placed within human beings to be able to know Him in an immediate way. It is through this innate disposition that human beings in various circumstances can come to know God in a properly basic way. The RE framework is compatible with Islamic epistemology elaborated by Ibn Taymiyyah. For Ibn Taymiyyah, the proper functioning of the sound fitrah confers warrant on foundational beliefs and allows it to apprehend the signs (ayaat) of God. As explained by Nazir Khan:

       According to the Taymiyyan model, upon the proper functioning of the heart in conjunction with the fitra, both of which have been designed to successfully acquire true beliefs about God when placed in suitable environments for this to occur, they will produce basic belief in Islam which can be said to be warranted in a properly basic way…it is specifically upon contact with the ‘signs of God’ that basic belief in Him, and subsequently His religion, can be warranted in accordance with Plantinga’s account of proper functionalism.[5]

Although tools such as deductive logic, validity, and axioms can help us to philosophically explain Islam as true, it does not mean that we need a philosophical argument to justify our belief. A person’s faith in God is fully justified and meaningfully grounded without any need for logical deductive argumentation. It is instead justified because it is the only meaningful outlook that emerges naturally from a person’s fitrah, just like the belief in the existence of good and evil, causality, numbers, truth, existence itself, and so on. Denying one’s fitrah leaves a person without an existential compass. Without a coherent system to interpret existence, one’s belief will easily dissolve into endless doubts in the well of radical scepticism.

Vernacular Islam in the War on Terror

The demands to prove that God exists and Islam is true are not particularly challenging, as long as the one who demands has a coherent definition of proof. But just because we can rationally explain Islam as true, it does not mean that we can then easily persuade people to change their convictions. Perhaps radical scepticism, like atheism, has always been a persistent phenomenon across generations. However, there is something specific about the way contemporary modern Muslims have started to adopt this sceptical stance towards Islam, with many losing their religion entirely. That specific context is linked to the development of the global War on Terror and the rise of the vernacular Islam discourse. 

The discourse gained traction in the decades following 9/11. In Southeast Asia, particularly the region of Indonesia-Malaysia-Singapore, the immediate policy adopted by Muslim communities was to distance themselves from ‘those bad Muslim terrorists’.  This policy suggested Southeast Asian Muslims embrace a more culturally-informed and presumably more nationalistic Muslim identity, with a very noticeable anti-‘Arabisation’ stance[6]. Vernacular Islam offers a discourse that suits this political agenda since in this paradigm, Islam does not need to be confirmed outside of Muslims’ living realities. Statements such as: “If Islam is inherently violent, then we would all already dead since there are seven billion Muslims in the world” are examples of this; Muslims need not explain or propagate Islam, they can prove their humanity by living as ‘normal’ people. Yet, these rhetorical one-liners are now gradually becoming a permanent argument Muslims use to escape the persistent, global, securitised gaze. Since it is deemed safer to talk about Islam as a culture, many modern Muslims choose to walk away from Islamic theological assumptions, especially those maintained by the Islamic scholars and clerics. 

To clarify, this article does not problematise all knowledge producers who pursue scholarships along the path of vernacular Islam. The problem lies in the instrumentalisation of the vernacular Islam discourse by radical sceptics to establish Islam as a culture. This allows its basic principles can be challenged and changed. The political use of vernacular Islam might be diverse and take different forms to suit the needs of different Muslim societies. However, as Muslims, we should be clear on the way it can fundamentally affect, if not drastically alter, our belief system.

Nayla Majestya is a university content-provider in media studies for Jakarta, Indonesia. A graduate from the University of Edinburgh, she is also a student of Arabic at the International Open University. For her sporadic content in Bahasa Indonesia, you can check The Muslim Gaze channel on Youtube. You can also follow her in Twitter @MajesticNayla 

[1]Harsin, Jayson. “Post-Truth and Critical Communication Studies.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication.2018

[2]Vernacular Islam

[3]Karamali, H. What is Islam? Why is Islam true with Hamza Karamali, Seekers Guidance

[4]Turner, Jamie B. . “An Islamic Account of Reformed Epistemology” Philosophy East and West. 2019

[5]Khan, N. Atheism and Radical Skepticism: Ibn Taymiyyah’s Epistemic Critique, Yaqeen Institute

[6]Razak, M. (2019), The Problem with the Discourse of Arabisation,The Karyawan

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