Book Review: ‘A Virtue of Disobedience’ by Asim Qureshi

“Throughout the pages of this book, I have done my best to understand the world that I see before me through the lens of my religion and my politics. I have always considered my faith to be emancipatory and fresh, one that is able to confront the problems of the world with mercy and justice. But what would my virtue of disobedience look like more formally. Where does this disobedience find its ethic and its power? I want to find the source of our resistance, so that it does not just become a strategy, but becomes part of the way that we live our lives and becomes part of the way in which we find faith.” 

[Asim Qureshi, A Virtue of Disobedience, p.139]

This article is not a “review” of Asim Qureshi’s A Virtue of Disobedience. I do not comment on the book’s evidence or arguments. I do not locate its place in the literature or where it fits amongst others. For one, any attempt in this short piece would do the book’s uniqueness an injustice, writes Yassir Morsi.

I wish simply to say that I recognise the book’s importance and the author’s brilliance, and how the task of writing such a book is worth writing about. Thus, I would prefer to see my article as an open and unashamed thank you. And, I hope that while showing my gratitude A Virtue of Disobedience’s endearing qualities will show themselves

To read Qureshi is to understand a life lived by a military-aged Sunni male. It is a life drawn in by the traps and by the gravity of the state’s “counter-terrorism”. Every Muslim either through words or silence confronts the opportunity to bear witness to this fight that marks us. Qureshi is a loud witness, and a needed one, whose fight accumulates into words about resistance. Words that pursues a necessary relationship to virtue and Islam. Yes we all know, a fight, our fight, this ongoing fight, but to reflect on it demands me to recognise on why and not how Qureshi his book. Why? Because as a Muslim I need it.

What is meant by “virtue”?

If I may overstep the boundaries of my knowledge, Qureshi’s pursuit of virtue is the pursuit of Ihsan. We find in the book’s pages tempered anger in an author discussing the racism that ended Trayvon Martin’s life. We find a passion that leads to hope as Qureshi finds truisms in the Quranic stories of Prophet Moses (peace be upon him). Together they interlink with further debates about the racism that drove the Holocaust and the endearing resistance of Malcolm X. All relate back to the need to disobey the violence of the State, but with a further call. To use a most relevant term, at the heart of this book is an Islamic aim of pursuing justice. An aim to pursue it as believers who know God watches all.

A growing gap is widening between two sides of the Muslim conversation. It is sometimes defined (reduced) to a conflict between Muslim activists and traditionalists. Debates between these two sides often centre on the relationship Islam ought to have with politics, or specifically “radical” politics (sometimes misnamed as “leftist” or “postmodern”). A gap that is especially wide in the young diaspora Muslim growing up in the shade of the War on Terror.

Traditionalists and “radical” politics

On one side of this gap, the traditionalists argue that an epistemic tradition binds together Islam. We must protect its borders. Islam has all the solutions. We should defend our deen from the corruption of any alien and secular westernese political language. The west is the west, and Islam is Islam, their politics is theirs, our is ours; a traditionalist argument that often finds it hard to locate tradition beyond texts, or known names, and which often erases an African-American experience of Islam, and other expressions from below.

On the other side of the gap then come the activists who highlight this. They see traditionalists as out of touch with the ways violence works. In general they charge them with having a profound ignorance to the way power produces silence. Activists tend to shun warnings about Muslims losing themselves to the supposed traps of feminism or anti-racism, and see it as one form of this silence. They see it is merely a fragile conservatism hiding behind religious speech.

With this gap in sight, I read Qureshi. His is as an attempt to build a bridge of sorts, but really to recall that Islam needs to have this gap. His works articulates itself into a necessary and potent question: ‘What might it mean to resist the state as a Muslim with the virtue of Islam? What might civil disobedience mean for the believer?’

Resistance in light of the War on Terror

And so from one angle, A Virtue of Disobedience begins the debate, sets it trajectory and canvasses the crisis of thought and youth on how we should respond to the War on Terror. For, Qureshi’s book wants to paradoxically both reach out as a Muslim to the multiple political traditions of resistance, and yet stand solid as a Muslim, to build walls and bridges.

A passage that pops out from the opening few pages recalls the raw tone of a James Baldwin writing to his nephew in The Fire Next Time:

“My sons. I hope you will read these words one day and find that they help you to confront whatever world you find yourself in. This book may end up seeming a contradiction to you. Surely your mother and I have always taught you to be obedient and respectful to your elders, to your teachers, to all those around you who have a collective care for you? Yet here I am…thinking about how disobedience might be a thing of virtue.”

[Asim Qureshi, A Virtue of Disobedience, p.18]

A first and foremost beautiful read, as a critical theorist, as an auto-ethnographer, and writer, I find Qureshi’s personal tone profound and loud, and it does what all good works of politics and anti-racism should. It makes visible the most intimate ways white power impacts us, destroy us, and has us dream about our futures.

“My sons …” Such a powerful evoking paragraph that captures the book’s call for responsibility to our future, to our daughters, to our sons, to each other. It demands an awakening at what is at stake here.

In the same opening pages, Qureshi gives a reflection on Shaker Aamer, a Muslim detained for 13 years in Guantanamo bay:

“It is these years…these thirteen years that were stolen from the released Guantanamo Bay detainee, Shaker Aamer, now home with his British family in the UK. Aamer lost that entire period of time due to his unlawful kidnapping by the US. He was deprived of a life that might have otherwise been lived.”

[Asim Qureshi, A Virtue of Disobedience, p.25]

13 is not just a number. Ask yourself, Qureshi speaks to the reader: what is the significance, precisely, of the loss of those years from your life?

“For me it means that I was never married to my wife. It means that none of my three boys would have existed – that I would never have witnessed them developing through all the small and large stages of their childhood. It would mean that I would never have graduated from my law degree, or my masters. I would never travelled large parts of the world, written a book or had the opportunity to meet my heroes, the survivors of terrible violations who resist being victims of their abuse.”

[Asim Qureshi, A Virtue of Disobedience, p.24]

Qureshi reminds us of the “long-lasting and deep impact of trauma that results from unlawful detention”. He tells us of Aamer’s struggle to hug his children again after such an absence. They were his children and returned to him as adolescent strangers.

At that moment, I breathe and pause to think of my children. May Allah protect us from such that which makes hugging our own children a trauma, ameen.

Qureshi carries the Muslim through story after story, name after name. The reader flips through a catalogue of injustices and a man who stood against it. No testimony speaks louder on the value of a book than the author’s own charity in giving his life to a cause. And so, this book not only outlines how we might all find virtue in our activism and tradition, it is in a most poetic way it embodies a most beautiful virtue: bravery.

So thank you Asim, a thank you said out loud by me, a Muslim to a Muslim, like you who has given his life to fighting and witnessing an unjust War on Terror.

You can follow Yassir Morsi on Twitter @YMorsi

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