A Culture of Ambiguity: An Alternative History of Islam
A Culture of Ambiguity: An Alternative History of Islam by Thomas Bauer is a bold, provocative and seductive take on the histories of Islamic civilisation(s), which profoundly challenges our approach to the Islamic past and present.
Ambiguity, a somewhat intimidating word that conjures up uncertainty, lack of clarity and to some degree murkiness, throughout the ages philosophers have yearned to conquer it, to dispel it, to replace it with clarity, certainty and above all else, the truth.
Placing this loathsome word next to Islam seems contradictory given the perceived hostility of religion in general, and Islam in particular, towards doubt, scepticism and plurality of truth. Everyone who grew up Muslim heard some variation of the Quran has all the answers and Shariah is very clear with the further adage Muslims need to stop mixing culture with religion.
The Muslim tradition of ambiguity has largely disappeared in modern times due to increasingly contact with the West and the importation of Western modernity, whether through direct colonisation or cultural imperialism
What room for ambiguity could possibly exist within Islam? But the room is indeed what Bauer’s book, recently translated from German, proposes is a quintessential feature of premodern Islam. What if the diversity of opinion, multiple and contradictory readings of sacred texts, religious, social and political dissent were not signs of an alignment, but rather a sign of God’s mercy?
The notion that contradictory truth claims are a blessing from God is how Bauer characterises pre-modern Islamic approaches to ambiguity, ambiguity was not to be feared but celebrated.
The premodern Islamic approach towards ambiguity was one of tolerance and this is sharply contrasted with European attitudes. “The culture of Islam diverges conspicuously from mainstream Western traditions, whether ancient classical or medieval times, which in many eras (although not all) rejected ambiguity.
This phenomenon of rejection can be observed in the earliest instances of a theoretical approach to ambiguity, namely in Aristotle’s employment of the word amphibolia as a term for (syntactical) ambiguity, which for him means a linguistic blemish.” This hostility towards ambiguity sharpens over time and the religious wars and killing of heretics in early modern Europe have as a component the insistence on an exclusive truth in competition with ‘clear’ falsehoods.
Bauer asserts the lack of religious wars and execution of heretics in premodern Islam is due to “a suspension of all claims to an exclusive truth – a suspension that was largely due to intensive training in ambiguity. To put it even more pointedly: The Western way was to eliminate ambiguity. This necessarily led to competing claims to the one and only definite truth”. Rather than trying to eliminate ambiguity, premodern Islam embraces it, domesticates it and makes it part of their scholarly, intellectual and philosophic culture.
Seeing ambiguity as a blessing extends to the Quran, looking at Ibn Al-Jazari (1350-1429) manual on interpreting the holy scripture, Bauer argues, “classical scholars were convinced that the abundance of variation in the Quranic text was intended by God. They even saw in this abundance a particular sign of His grace, since the wealth of variant readings was intended as a relief for mankind.”
The modern West continues to be hostile to ambiguity and insists upon one universalising truth, which modern Muslims have adopted across the board, Islamic discourse has gone from toleration of ambiguity to hostility towards it
Bauer cites this passage from Al-Jazari’s manual, “Ever since early times, the scholars of this community never stopped (and will never stop) deducing from the Quran (juridical) indications, arguments, proofs, insight, and so on, which earlier scholars had not yet realised, without exhausting future scholars. Rather, the Quran is a vast ocean in which one never reaches the ground or is stopped by a shore.”
Indeed premodern scholars were nervous about translating the Quran into other languages, Bauer argues, because they were worried about the translations being too literal, rigid and with little interpretive room. This insistence that diversity is a blessing runs counter to modern Muslim discourses, which tend to insist on correct interpretations and unambiguous readings. Bauer's book goes beyond approaches to scriptural and looks at how a culture of ambiguity dealt with things like sexuality, punishment and other social and cultural relations.
Bauer argues this Muslim tradition of ambiguity has largely disappeared in modern times due to increased contact with the West and the importation of Western modernity, whether through direct colonisation or cultural imperialism.
The modern West continues to be hostile to ambiguity and insists upon one universalising truth, which modern Muslims have adopted across the board, Islamic discourse has gone from toleration of ambiguity to hostility towards it, Muslim modernist reformers treated the Islamic past as an embarrassment.
More rigid rules and clearer boundaries came in and truth claims were forced to compete with one another, both secular liberal reformers, Islamic traditionalists and Salafists all reinforce this modernising discourse. Not only in terms of approaches to scripture but also in terms of social practice from sexuality to political order. This intellectual tour de force will no doubt shake the frame of Islamic, Middle Eastern and area studies, but it also offers a chance to rethink our ideas about the present and possible futures.
Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.
Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt