May 16, 2018

calculated disenchantment

The dead horse that is the annual Muslim debate over moonsighting versus calculations is at this point beyond beaten. The poor guy is at this point a pile of bones, now being grinded into dust.

Are there multiple opinions on the issue? Of course. Am I as a muqallid individual qualified to make a judgment between these issues? No. I simply follow the opinion of authentic scholars whom I trust and have a relationship with. This has, for me, meant that I am on #TeamMoonsighting.

The legal debate, then, isn’t going to be settled anytime soon. But setting that completely aside for a moment, I want to make the case that there is another, more philosophical reason to hold fast to moonsighting. In short: calculating the start of lunar months (as opposed to welcoming in each month by sighting the moon with the naked eye) contributes to an illusory sense that human beings can anticipate and master natural phenomenon. Muslims are thus further disenchanted, further disconnected from nature, further away from experiencing Allah’s qudra and qāhiriyya.

In the Western philosophical tradition, Max Weber was the first to write about how rationalism (in its ideological mode) rendered the world

…transparent and demystified. Theological and supernatural accounts of the world involving gods and spirits, for example, ceased to be plausible. Instead, one put one’s faith in the ability of science to eventually explain everything in rational terms. But, for Weber, the effect of that demystification was that the world was leeched of mystery and richness. It became disenchanted and disenchanting, predictable and intellectualized. In that sense, the disenchantment of the world is the alienating and undesirable flip side of scientific progress.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, disenchantment really got its wheels when a critical mass in society insisted that all human activity ought to be conducted as “rational action,” and that recourse to other rubrics was essentially a sign of backwardness.

Rational action in one very general sense presupposes knowledge. It requires some knowledge of the ideational and material circumstances in which our action is embedded, since to act rationally is to act on the basis of conscious reflection about the probable consequences of action. As such, the knowledge that underpins a rational action is of a causal nature conceived in terms of means-ends relationships, aspiring towards a systematic, logically interconnected whole. Modern scientific and technological knowledge is a culmination of this process that Weber called intellectualization, in the course of which, the germinating grounds of human knowledge in the past, such as religion, theology, and metaphysics, were slowly pushed back to the realm of the superstitious, mystical, or simply irrational. It is only in modern Western civilization, according to Weber, that this gradual process of disenchantment (Entzauberung) has reached its radical conclusion.

Interestingly enough, Weber identified the impulse towards making the world “calculatable” (i.e. reducible to data, algorithms, predictability, big data, etc) as that which midwifed the modern “rational” man. Here’s Stanford again:

Further, all this calculability and predictability in political, social, and economic spheres was not possible without changes of values in ethics, religion, psychology, and culture. Institutional rationalization was, in other words, predicated upon the rise of a peculiarly rational type of personality, or a “person of vocation” (Berufsmensch) as outlined in the Protestant Ethic. The outcome of this complex interplay of ideas and interests was modern rational Western civilization with its enormous material and cultural capacity for relentless world-mastery.

There’s a critique of late-stage capitalism in here somewhere. Toss that one in the bucket of possible dissertation ideas…

To summarize:

Yes, moonsighting can be onerous. Yes, you may not be able to tell your boss in advance what day you need off, or when your kid might need to be taken out of school. Or maybe, one part of your extended family insists on following calculations, dividing you down the middle. But these are small issues, almost all of which have workarounds and are of little consequence.

By embracing these small annoyances, one gains so much in return. A chance to connect with that luminous moon Allah has placed in the heavens above, which proclaims and exalts His holy name at all times in all states. A feeling of anticipation and joy when the moon is finally sighted. A night of excitement as the first jama’ah of tarawīh is hastily assembled at the masjid. And ultimately, the indescribable sweetness of submitting the entirety of your body, mind, and soul to the Lord above.

Honor this process. The world has enough disenchantment as it is.

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