In order to tackle the question of culture, the ulama referred to very systemized approaches through which one might consider on the one hand customs and entertainments (which were acceptable to the extent to which their practice respected Islamic principles) and on the other hand the arts, of which some were permitted and others of which were forbidden in themselves, apart from local considerations. We know the debates between scholars and the various schools of thought on the subjects of music, drawing, photography, and sculpture.4 The distinction between forbidden and permissible art form is difficult to make in the West, where cultural expression often blends both types so that it is difficult to draw a line of demarcation between what is permitted and what is forbidden. So a more comprehensive approach is needed.
Our sources have taught us, as we saw in part I, that a Manichaean or dualistic approach should be avoided: what Muslims produce is “Islamic” and what comes from the non-Muslim West is “anti-Islamic.” In the area of culture, as in every other, the criteria for evaluating an action, a production, or a custom are not to be found in the identity of its promoter or its origin but in its respect or lack of respect for the ethical principles we hold. This rule invites the mind to study, understand, and choose when it finds itself in a new environment, within a new culture. This is what Western Muslims are in need of today: a comprehensive vision and a selective approach.
Some scholars have used arguments taken from the Qur’an and the Sunna to forbid music and sometimes drawing and photography (and hence television and cinema). This is one of several opinions, and it must be respected. Others have permitted these arts, with the imposition of certain conditions concerning respect for ethical values. Those who follow the view of the former must effectively cut themselves off from the Western world, so much are music, photography, and television part of the daily way of life. The others, among whom I count myself,5 must find a selective approach in these matters, as in others. Not everything produced in the West by way of literature, painting, music, television, and cinema is either of very high quality or very moral, but it is erroneous, and fundamentally false, to allow it to be thought that everything is perverted and useless. Honesty consists in being particular and not merging everything together. This is where the critical, selective approach comes into its own. French, English, American, German, and Spanish literatures, to name but a few, are immensely rich, and it is senseless to ignore them on the pretext that they are not “Islamic.” The principle of integration has taught us to integrate into our identity and our culture everything humankind produces that is not in contradiction with a prohibition: we can find mountains of works that meet this criterion in the various literatures. It is impossible to be a European or American Muslim without integrating at least part of the world of that culture’s imagination. It is not all of equal quality—we have to make a choice. But we must travel this road. So eventually “Islamic” bookshops will have to offer their customers new literary horizons: novels, short stories, poetry—but also works in the humanities and philosophy that feed and shape the mind, without its meaning that one “loses oneself.”
The same approach should be followed with regard to music, cinema, and television programs. We can neither ignore the environment nor lose our critical awareness: we must always be discerning in the extraordinary volume of “culture” that bombards us every day. An ethic of consumption has to be observed, and there should be no unconscious sanctioning of musical or film productions that have become the products of a veritable industry whose promoters are without taste or scruples and whose only criterion for success is sales. Muslims are not the only critics of big-budget cinema, coarse musical productions, and “trash television”: what is needed is to develop a critical eye, discover how to choose one’s interests, and control one’s inclinations toward the less worthy attractions. In the West, to educate oneself or another means to teach this critical approach, this active spirituality, this sense of control; it is undeniably difficult, but this is the effort, the spiritual jihad, that every person with moral awareness must take on in the West. It would be wrong to minimize either these realities or the detailed education they demand: to succeed in confronting the pressure of the world of television, music, and the cinema, with all their perverted and dehumanizing aspects, assumes not only a wellestablished ethic but also access to alternatives that themselves come to us through the most intelligent, dignified, and humane television, cinema, and musical productions. It is both a training and a struggle: we train ourselves to acquire a cultural and artistic eye and good taste, and we have to struggle to refuse being transformed into complacent, passive, docile consumers. It is sad to see what is more often the case—that those who are happiest to listen to the most violent and extreme speeches in the mosques about music and the cinema are often the first to spend their evening at home watching television programs or films that are completely lacking in intelligence or imagination, with hardly any awareness of the contradiction. It is one thing to anathematize in words and another to compromise in life.
The emotional management of our inner conflict is itself full of contradictions. Education toward a critical mind, toward the faculty of observing and understanding (the explicit as well as the implicit content of attitudes and messages), toward knowing how to make decisions in awareness and in full independence, is a necessary stage in the management of our relationship with culture and the arts. Self-isolation and complete prohibition are impossible, and, in my view, only selective development has some chance of success. The community of faith, in this Western world full of challenges, should pool its resources in order to fashion this new Muslim personality—a deep, intelligent spirituality, a critical and independent mind, a free, humble, determined will, increasingly confident in its choices. This development requires that we know our sources and know this environment from within, with its logic, its psychology, and its dynamics. In other words, it requires that we be here, that we really exist here, and that, out of the very heart of Western culture, we find the means to sustain ourselves, to outdo ourselves, and to become capable of making our own contribution.
We have to “rediscover,” one might say, to use the famous expression of Rimbaud. And, while the critical work of selection we have referred to goes on, it is important that the talents of Muslim authors be expressed and that they produce original works inspired by their perceptions and their ethics but at the same time authentically “European” or “American” in quality, style, and taste. We should no longer import foreign works, thinking that the Oriental touch is the mark of the product’s “Islamicness” or, on the other hand, imitate Western works while adding, with varying degrees of success, a sprinkling of phrases (often in Arabic) in order to “Islamize” them. We are in urgent need of artists who think for themselves, in their own language, with their own taste, and their own psychology. We are in need of creativity and new commitments. “God is beautiful and he loves beauty” says a well-known hadith, and Islamic art through the ages has expressed its excellence in various parts of the world. Today, Muslims are in the West; they are Americans and Europeans, and it is their responsibility to scrutinize the horizons of their imagination and breathe life into the arts that will wed their ethics harmoniously to their perception. In literature, music, and painting, as well as in cinema, the Way is open for experimenting with new modes of expression, new meanings, new colors, new words. We are still lacking in this creativity.
Reformist thinking has as a principle not to change Muslims of today into imitators of Muslims of yesterday. Faithful to the principles, they must find out how to live with their own time. In the same way, Muslims of today must not become imitators of the fashions of the day or be satisfied with the law of least resistance by contenting themselves with “Islamizing” whatever “goes” commercially. When this first stage of adaptation drags on, it is because laziness is overcoming us and we lack imagination. The indicators of this tendency to imitate are legion: in numerous Muslim gatherings, the bands, the varieties of music, and the types of presentation are pure reproductions of what one might see on television or at some young people’s parties. The event has been “Islamized,” that is to say, made permissible (halal), without any great concern for the implicit messages conveyed by this so-called substitute (badil) culture. For a party (exactly as at other parties where-we-must-not-go), we want bands with loud music, dim lighting, very up-to-the-minute performances, because that is what young people want. What is unconsciously reproduced is a kind of relation with consumerism and a focus on celebrity (the same as there-where-wemust-not-go), a relationship with night, with noise, with entertainment. Behind the entertainment that is being offered to people is a particular psychology of silence and noise, day and night, relation with oneself and with the other, which as a whole translates into a philosophy of existence. The message of Islam makes us attentive to silence, to the quality of what replaces or disturbs it. It also makes us aware that there is another way of facing night, by making way for silence in a sort of recollection. Ultimately, it guides our entertainment toward the exploration of that state in which one forgets the world without forgetting oneself, by remaining human and safeguarding one’s dignity. These promptings should make it possible, even in the West, not to neglect the psychology that should underpin art and entertainment in the Islamic philosophy of life, not in order to isolate oneself or to forbid everything but, on the contrary, to commit oneself—to develop a critical mind, to make choices, to contribute, to renew, and always not to imitate either the past or the present. To be Western Muslims is to confront reality with all its challenges and, sustained every day by the “need of Him,” to take on all our responsibilities.