What I am … is in key part what I inherit, a specific past that is present to some degree in my present. I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of a tradition.1
– Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue
The Kaaba, the simple—now black-draped—cubical building at the center of al-Masjid al-Ḥarām in Mecca, is a powerful object and symbol within the Muslim religious imagination. Consider for the moment, then, that the Kaaba or the bayt Allāh (“the house of God”) represents the Islamic tradition. Imagine that it is the tradition.
The Kaaba is a thing that belongs to both the human and the divine. It is at once the house of God, a site declared sacred in the Qur’an—“God has made the Kaaba, the Sacred House, a support for humankind” (Qur’an 5:97)2 while also an edifice of stone built by human hands, which lives in human history alongside the passing lives of innumerable human beings. The stones that support the Kaaba today have been replaced and reworked many times during the course of countless generations. It has always been the construct of men. Indeed, it has undergone perpetual reconstruction by men. This is the Kaaba—bayt Allāh, the house of God—protected by our Creator but also maintained by His creation. Such is the nature of tradition.
What is tradition—and why envision the Kaaba to understand it? The first part of this question is not new. The concern for tradition is as old as history. After all, tradition is fundamentally historical in nature. It emerges in the space between the past and the present and is invoked frequently as a key concept for understanding the past, present, and future of communities of faith. For some, tradition represents a rich source of hope, if only it were properly observed, preserved, reformed, or revived. For others, tradition is archaic, outmoded, and possibly deleterious to society—or worse, to “progress”—and must accordingly be restrained, resisted, or abolished altogether. For yet others of a more analytical bent, tradition is a dynamic frame of reference, a mechanism for social adaptation, or an ongoing historical process.
Within Muslim contexts, especially in the wake of European colonialism and encroachment, tradition has acquired seemingly existential significance. The anxiety and confusion around tradition has persisted, if not grown, since then. Today’s Muslim discourses are replete with exhortations to the Islamic tradition, prophetic traditions, traditional learning, (neo-)traditionalism, and “the tradition” in general. These usages are not necessarily commensurate, and reference to tradition often becomes a shortcut to authenticity.3 While Muslims largely recognize the importance of tradition, they differ widely and sometimes divisively about its meaning and scope. With legitimacy and orthodoxy at stake, contention about tradition is to be expected.