There has been a trend for some time within Islamic Studies, and amongst Muslim diaspora communities, of condemning rationalist narratives of our identities, religion, and history. The attempt to escape from the epistemological world of the Enlightenment has led us down a variety of narrative pathways – to conceptual frameworks of the ghayb, the unseen world, the imaginal realm, ‘alam al-mithal of Suhrawardi, to postcolonial yearning for precolonial utopia, to decolonising museum exhibitions, course curricula, our sexualities and understandings of our selves. I list these attempts at escaping from an episteme that we perceive as oppressive not to denigrate but rather to celebrate the diversity of approaches. However, there is always the risk that the more one struggles in the net of rationalism, through a reading of texts, the writing of public apologias, that the more one becomes ensnared in the very trap one is trying to escape. While I cannot claim that dream interpretation narratives allow us a way out, it is a mode of narrativising that allows a respite from the logic of modernity and literal Wahhabism and from falling into the trap of rationalising and psychologising our inner worlds. It permits us some epistemological autonomy.
The existential complaint of Muslim diaspora times, which many of us share, can be summed up in a term coined by Leyla Jagiella (whose work is also featured in this volume): the Wahhabitus. Drawing on the well-established notion of the habitus, originated by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in 1977, the concept has been influential in a number of fields. The habitus is the system of generative structures and schemes into which we are inculcated, which determine our thoughts, perceptions, and actions. The notion of the habitus was used more recently by Saba Mahmood in her groundbreaking study of the anthropology of Islam in which she brings the habitus back to its Aristotelian roots in an effort to escape (somewhat) the determinism of Bourdieu’s original formulation. Stressing the instructive process by which the habitus is acquired, Mahmood argues that habitus can be attained via a set of conscious bodily and mental practices culminating in an unconscious and embodied conception of the self and set of actions, thoughts, and ways of being.
This idea was developed further in the work of Aisha Beliso-De Jesus, who researches Santeria belief systems and practices in the diaspora, and draws on Mahmood to elaborate a ‘spiritual habitus’: the ‘self-forming capacities for action’, which are created through both bodily and spiritual practices with unseen beings who form part of Santeria beliefs. Drawing on these developments, the Wahhabitus is a tongue-in-cheek but also deadly serious concept necessary to understand our predicament. The Wahhabitus, as I have understood it, encompasses the spiritual and bodily practices, thought-worlds and assumptions of the Wahhabo-sphere, which embodies a modernising, austere aesthetic of Protestant text-based reasoning, rationalism, utilitarianism, and also prudery. The Wahhabitus is the ensemble of this matrix, which we have swallowed and embodied, and continue to reproduce, even in our activism and research, which (at times) we believe has to be somehow ‘useful’ or ‘doing good’ for ‘the community’.