Relating the pragmatism promoted by Shaykh Yasir Qadhi to the contextualism of strategic design

بِسْمِ ٱللَّٰهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ | In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate

Recently, Shaykh Yasir Qadhi gave a lecture at Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Mississauga. His lecture – titled “Unity in Light of Sectarian Differences: A Pragmatic Approach” – is structured around seven points that together aim to encourage unity for Muslims in Canada. And it culminates in a proposal of “circles of cooperation” (more below).

Reminder: Designing with Adab relates Islamic thinking to strategic design

This learning journal fills in a knowledge gap between strategic design (Design 3.0 & 4.0) and Islamic thinking. It does so by relating strategic design concepts to the inherent wisdom in Islam, as it lived/applied here in Ontario.

So I will relate the topics of contextualism and pragmatism (as Sheikh Yasir Qadhi’s “circles of Cooperation”) found in this lecture from my strategic design perspective.

First, a bit about contextualism & pragmatism in strategic design

“Contextualism” was described by Stephen C. Pepper in 1942. For the sake of brevity for this entry, l’ll just describe this worldview as: understanding a unique event as inseparable from its history, in a present specific situation (time and location bound).

Contextualism is a branch of pragmatism, which focuses on real-world outcomes. Pragmatism values an idea based on its actions, experiences, consequences, results, successes, etc.

The pragmatism and contextualism of Sheikh Yasir Qadhi

Let’s now briefly unpack these two themes – contextualism and pragmatism – in Sheikh Yasir Qadhi’s lecture, specifically his seventh and final point. First let’s just list (but not expand) on the six points he makes leading up to his closing points.

Points 1 to 6 (of 7):

  1. Not every ikhtilaf (difference of opinion) should lead to a khilaf (difference in the heart/community)
  2. The religion of Islam is broader than any one fikh/maslab/jamah.
  3. Differences in how to revive the ummah (or differences in methodology) should be viewed as complementary and not in competition
  4. Understand the banality of trivialism
  5. The implications of an opinion are not the opinion and they only exist in the mind of the critic, not in the one who holds the opinion
  6. On the day of judgement, ignorance is an excuse within mainstream Islam

Point 7a: The modern world prioritizes/directs our attention to the most important and urgent issues to focus on

[…] ask yourself is this the time and the place I need to be bickering about issues that are of no tangible concern is this the time and place? I need to divide the umma up? When your house in on fire and you’re going to be arguing over the colour of the furniture. This is the equivalent.

[…]we start fighting over aspects that even if they’re important at some places and times right here and now it becomes trivial. So my seventh point is look at the world around you. The world right now doesn’t need these classical controversies.

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This excerpt describes a pragmatic and contextual minded way of prioritizing urgent and important issues facing Muslims.

Point 7b: Our problems are unique to the world and in order to solve those problems we need to rely on local scholars

[…] it’s high time we the Muslims of North America, Canada, America, England Australia, the English-speaking countries…it’s high time we understand our problems are unique to the world. And in order to solve those problems sometimes respected scholars 5,000 miles away are not the best source of answers for our modern problems. I speak as somebody who respects those scholars because I’ve studied with them they’ve written tazkias for me. I’ll be the first to say their their their knowledge of their tradition cannot be compared to anybody over here. But when it comes to living amongst non-muslims in a secular democracy, when it comes to engagement, when it comes to dawa, when it comes to activism, our local scholars who have lived amongst us – even if they can’t quote you the classic tradition as much as your sheikh 3,000 miles away – your local scholars here are your primary source of reference and leadership.

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In this excerpt, you can see that when Sheikh Yasir Qadhi takes a contextualist approach it naturally connects to localism. The pragmatic wisdom here filters out the usefulness of ideas (and ideals) based on what they can achieve on the local reality.

Concluding Point: Circles of Cooperation

All of the above points, culminate in Sheikh Yasir Qadhi’s proposed “Circles of Cooperation”.

I’ve created a rough table to try and capture the essence of this concept.

Narrowest High Within mainstream Sunni Islam The person leading the prayer should be from mainstream sunni Islam.
Middle Medium Share Islamic values, but not necessarily same sect To build an Islamic school with other Muslim sects.
Broadest Low / None (secular) Adherence to Islam / Islamic values is not pre-requisite to collaboration Using political activism, alongside Muslims and non-Muslims together, to pressure local government towards a shared goal (i.e. saving lives).

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There’s not much to expand upon other than to say this concept is a distilled expression of pragmatic Islam in a secular liberal democracy.

Emphasizing “goals” above “ideas” as a common feature between Sheikh Yasir Qadhi’s pragmatism and the contextualism of strategic design

When taking this to strategic design, you can see that the makeup of stakeholders, shared concerns, alignment of values, etc. becomes more or less manageable based on the size of the circle and its especially it’s “goals” (i.e. outcomes, real-world impact, etc.).

Based on my learning and experience, pragmatism in strategic design allows for collaborating with others on shared “goals”, but not necessarily shared “ideals”. This is key and problematic for Muslims in Ontario, including myself. When we require that our collaborators be aligned with our Islamic ideals as a pre-requisite for collaboration, then we limit our progress and effectiveness of real-world outcomes. However, when we collaborate on shared “goals” (accomplishable in a time/space situation), the doors of pragmatic wisdom become more clearer. This latter approach is more in tune with the context we live in, as Muslim minorities in a secular liberal democracy. This is what I perceive Sheikh Yasir Qadhi to be encouraging.

So the importance of “goals’ in a pragmatic approach are critical because they inform the scope of collaboration. Understanding this can shape how Muslim community leaders set their strategies.

Three strategic benefits of taking a “goal”-oriented approach for Muslim leaders in Ontario:

  1. Goal-setting helps better filter/calibrate the global media ecology with our local reality: A contextual and pragmatic approach should draw our attention to the local affairs that we live in and can affect directly. Among the many effects that localism has on our energy and efforts, one prominent one is the effect that it has on reshaping the relationship Muslims in Ontario have with their media ecology. Localism dramatically affects how Muslims in Ontario filter and interact/react with non-local information and events. Essentially it’s the fundamental information that all action relies on. It can benefit Muslim leaders in Ontario to ask critical questions about how accurately their media intake maps to the local realities. This can minimize the distorting effects of an unbounded media ecology. It would bolster our interest in gathering local intelligence, and improving Muslim leaders’ capacity to do so (i.e. research design, horizon scanning, trend analysis, etc.).

  2. Setting and working towards clear strategic “goals” can enable progress, as oppose to working on the ideal vision: A pragmatic approach emphasizes real-world outcomes. So it’s critical to articulate real-world achievable or measurable “goals” that bring utility and clarity to audiences. In the Ontario context, it would be unwise to use the typical “vision”-type language, that we often see in the higher-order statements of organizations, to measure success or outcomes. Certainly visioning has its time and place. But it’s not the most useful for enabling collaborations, perhaps especially so the Ontario context. This requires a deeper reflection of the role that our “ideals” play – as individuals and as a collective – as Muslim minorities in secular Ontario (for another entry, inshaAllah).

  3. Collaborations are more easily understood as affecting outcomes, not endorsements: A well-specified goal helps identify and collaborate with people/orgs who share an interest in achieving the goal, regardless of their ideals. This can increase the possibility of achieving the shared goal. Importantly, collaborations can be dissolved once the goal is achieved. It doesn’t signify endorsement or entail ongoing support. (Perhaps another entry inshaAllah, can expand on how this approach steps out of the limiting mindset about who Muslims in Ontario “should/shouldn’t” work, invite, collaborate with, etc.)

الله أعلم / Allah knows best