Being in the process of writing my master’s thesis on Marshall McLuhan’s media theory, along with just having binge watched the incredible Netflix series Black Mirror (I can’t decide which of the two projects is more exciting), I find myself in quite a prognostic mood. Hence, I wish to make a prediction about the next fifty years. It has to do with the interaction between Western and Eastern scholarship and how Islamic learning trickles down to the masses; and particularly how modern media will affect that relationship.
Most practising Western Muslims are familiar with the issue of importing imams from abroad, getting fatawa from the East and simply applying them in the West without considering the socio-cultural differences, and the problems that go along with that. The importance of producing indigenous Islamic scholarship and creating an organic Western Muslim culture is by now, more or less universally acknowledged and has basically settled into a cliché. It isn’t really a question of whether or not Western Muslims should develop a Western Islamic identity; nor is it whether or not it will ever happen; rather the question now seems to be: How long it will take? I believe, and I am sure that I am not the first to say this, that when it does happen, not only will Western Muslims stop throwing glances at the East for Islamic guidance, the Muslims of the East will start taking knowledge from Western scholars. This will happen in a large measure because of technology. Just like Saudi influence has been so dominant due to oil money, in a similar way, Western Muslim influence will become obvious because of the currency of technological superiority, particularly in the form of social media. (The fact that the world looks to the West in general for all things cultural, scientific, political, etc., also has something to do with it, of course.)
This has already started to happen. I see it in Bosnia, my own country of origin, where young practising Muslims are translating videos of American scholars into Bosnian and spreading them online, abandoning their own local scholars in the process. I’ve heard that the same happens in Pakistan, where someone like Nouman Ali Khan has a larger audience among some Pakistanis, than do their own local imams. I imagine it has started to happen all over the Muslim world.
Is this a problem? It can be, of course, if “Western Islam” appropriates the negative aspects of Western non-Muslim culture and if it ends up being tinged with an inferiority complex. For example, we would not like Western Islam to turn into the equivalent of, say, Reconstructionist Judaism, where Muslims make compromise after compromise to fit in with the crowd. We do not want Western Islam to be the same as vulgar Islam. But a Westernised Islam influencing the rest of the Ummah isn’t intrinsically a bad thing. Nor would it be the first time that such a thing happens. Persian scholars surpassed their Arab counterparts early on in Islamic history, particularly in the field of hadith studies. Where would Islam be without al-Bukhari, Abu Hanifa and al-Ghazali? Over the centuries, Islamic and Persian culture have grown into a symbiosis despite the early antagonism between the Rashidun Caliphate and the Persian empire. Where would Muslim culture be without that relationship? What would, for example, the cultural history of Mughal India be without Persian literature?
Within the next fifty years (and most likely even earlier), Muslims of the West will stop looking to the East for Islamic guidance, and instead Muslims of the world will start looking to the West for that very purpose. Whether or not that turns out to be a good thing is up to us. It is a major responsibility, and it is time to realise that we will need to shoulder it.