Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A new religious discourse

A new religious discourse is needed to restore Islam’s original meaning and individual and social role, writes Ammar Ali Hassan

A new religious discourse

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Does Islam need to be reformed, some might ask in surprise. Yet, if they took the trouble to think and study some history, Islamic theology and jurisprudence, sociology and anthropology and, perhaps above all, comparative religion, they would realise that Islam has been hijacked. What we have today is a far cry from the Islam of the time of the Prophet Mohamed. 

Its essence, founded on two cardinal values — the unity of God and his mercy — has been transformed over the ages into political ideologies, myths and legends, folklore, commerce and medical and psychological cure-alls. It has been utilised by institutions and individuals throughout history. It has been encumbered with successive layers of accretions, the accumulated mass of which has shrouded its major wellsprings and altered its nature and essence, as has occurred with other religions. It is for these reasons that Islam needs reform.

Salafis may leap up and say, “we’ll take charge of that.” After all, they claim to want to return to fundamentals. But they lack scientific method and the critical approach that seeks to unearth the objective truth, as opposed to “proofs” unearthed from the exegeses and commentaries of theologians and jurists writing centuries after the time of the prophet in order to substantiate preconceived notions. 

Accounts about events that happened centuries before these men’s time are unlikely to be entirely accurate, and they may be influenced by exigencies, interests and sociopolitical phenomena specific to their times. In addition, the Salafist methodology for going back to the “source” is a man-made process characterised by a loosely linked chain of figures like Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Taimeya and Ibn Abdel-Wahab with various others in between. If the Salafis held that the works of these individuals were no more than individual theological conceptions and opinions, then there would be no problem. However, instead they see them as infallible and sacred. 

Many say that everything is to be found in the Quran, the “founding text” of Islam. As long as we have that, we can go back to the origin as revealed to the prophet. However, this assertion overlooks four main issues. First, the true approach to the Quran has been forgotten with time, meaning that it has become something that is read and recited in order to acquire divine blessings, rather than a book to be contemplated, studied, and probed for its deeper meanings and truths using modern methods of critical analysis. What we have today, instead of the Quran, are human texts that attempt to explain it and that have so proliferated over the centuries that we can no longer see it for what it is.  

The second problem is that we always read or recite the text piecemeal or selectively. We never look at it as a whole. This obscures its real and natural value in our lives. It also makes it easier for extremists and others with agendas of their own to utilise it in order to justify their own warped behaviour, much of which flies in the face of the essence of the faith, and realise their own ends, however insidious these may be. 

In the realm of politics and law, constitutions are read as organic wholes because their provisions are interrelated and help to explain one another. The same applies to a literary text: parts are grasped in the context of the whole. However, many fail to employ analogous methods when it comes to the Quran. Instead, they pick and choose which verses to apply to this or that situation, claiming that this is God’s judgement as revealed in the Holy Book. 

Third, the Quran has interacted with the lives of Muslims across the ages. Some of them have exploited it from the time of the arbitration between Ali and Muaweya in the early days of Islam to the ways that extremist groups exploit it today. Fourth, the Quran is not treated as a text distinct from the circumstances of its time and place of creation. Some people perpetually claim to understand its meaning. It is impossible to say how often they have misrepresented it by clinging to its literal meaning, so intent are they on this rather than on its deeper substance.

For all the above reasons we need religious reform, a process that will enable us to possess a new religious discourse, instead of the talk that has been heard about “renovating” religious discourse. This could be tantamount to slapping a fresh coat of paint on a ramshackle wall. 

A new religious discourse

REFORMATION IN ISLAM: The argument that reform is a process that concerns Western Christianity, and not Islam, is also to be rejected. 

Some Islamic institutions and dogmas have come to play the same obstructive role as the Church once played in Europe. Muslim religious scholars reiterate that there is no such thing as a priesthood in Islam. But their actual practices sometimes tell us otherwise. There are theological and judicial opinions and interpretations, hadith (sayings) attributed to the prophet, and histories and biographies of the early period of Islam that need to be submitted to a thorough process of analysis and revision. We also need to answer the crucial question of whether the Quran itself is a text or an entire discourse.

It should be stressed that religious reform does not mean changing the faith. It means rethinking the many forms of religiosity and the many pieties that transform religion into a political ideology, a folklore, a mode of commerce or a palliative. It also means reexamining the theological sciences that rely on and recycle the works of ancient scholars and narratives and that endow these works with sometimes unwarranted sanctity. 

As for political and proselytising Islamist groups, their ideas and perceptions will not evolve unless they seriously and objectively consider four requirements.

The first is the need to draw a clear distinction between the Quranic revelation and history. The former is an original and foundational source. The latter is an experience from which we can draw lessons without taking it as a gauge for measuring and judging subsequent actions, or modes of behaviour and opinions, and without imbuing it with an aura of infallible sanctity. 

The second is the need to draw a line between text and discourse, in other words between the Quran as a single, final and perfect text, on the one hand, and the numerous narratives and opinions surrounding that text, on the other. The latter are man-made and therefore can be subjected to revision and criticism.

The third is the need to draw a line between the basic, general moral principles and values of Islam and the ways these are manifested in society across history, thereby keeping the door open to new ways of manifesting the principles and values without deviating from or distorting their substance. Some modes of expressing these principles and values may have served to realise their ends in the past, but this may no longer be the case in the present. 

The fourth is the need to draw a line between historical religious figures, including the companions of the Prophet, and the sacredness of the principles established by Islam. A person’s moral standing is determined by his or her principles and the extent to which they remain true to them. People are defined by their principles, not the other way around.

To hear some representatives of Salafist groups speak, one might think that they would have no objections in principle to the four above-mentioned requirements. They claim to want to dig through the intrusions, distortions and additions to the religion in order to reach back to its “source” or “origin”. Yet, when putting this into practice they do precisely the opposite: confusing the “divine” with the “human” and the “text” with the surrounding “discourse” and denying how social contexts, human problems and sociopolitical challenges have changed over time.

There can be no progress towards enlightenment unless we accept five basic principles.

The first is that faith is a personal matter. No one should stand between the worshipper and his Lord. No one should have the right to judge another person’s faith or to interfere in another person’s beliefs beyond offering moral advice or counsel. There must be no coercion in matters of religion. Not only is this principle consistent with the substance of the Quranic text, it also conforms with natural reasoning. Any action to the contrary is antithetical to the essence of faith and turns religion into a source of hardship, hypocrisy and exploitation.

“Remind them that you are one who reminds; you are not one who asserts control over them,” God told the Prophet Mohamed in the Quran (88: 21-22). The verse defines the nature of the prophetic mission, which was to inform people of the revelation, not to impose the faith. Yet, how many people and groups have emerged over the millennia intent on doing just the opposite: using force to compel people to believe and associating religion with coercion in the name of “propagating virtue and preventing vice” even though this process should not exceed the bounds of informing, reminding and preaching. 

This principle comes with a corollary precisely because it emphasises the need to inform, rather than to coerce. It is crucial to steer the practice of religion from the realm of blind faith and unquestioning acceptance of what was handed down by our ancestors to the realm of faith based on understanding, awareness and informed choice. 

The second principle is that the exercise of the intellect complements revelation. Conventional religious attitudes sometimes treat the mind as an adversary to the Quranic revelation. The intellect is regarded either with suspicion, as though it was intent on attacking and offending revelation, or it is regarded with disdain, as though it was incapable of understanding it. In both cases, according to the traditional attitude, the intellect is expected to keep silent and obey, whether on the grounds that the “explicit text is beyond conjecture”, especially if that text is “categorical and unambiguous”, as the traditional description puts it, or on the grounds that the ancients understood the faith better than later generations. 

The source of human knowledge is God through his revelations to the prophets and the intellect with which He has endowed us in order to observe, think and organise our lives on earth. There is nothing mutually exclusive between the two. If the revelation is a primary source for understanding the divine, the universe, creation and other phenomena around us, this should not preclude knowledge being available to the intellect to contemplate. At the same time, there is nothing to prevent the intellect from being applied to other different and unrelated matters that arise in the course of the development of human life.

We can take this some steps further if we link religious reform to rational processes and set as the aim of reform the advocacy of Islamic religious rationalism. This would put it on a par with other contemporary faiths that have given precedence to a religiously inspired spirit of reason, parting ways with naïve or prescriptive absolutism. Such a contemporary religious rationalism entails accepting contemporary institutions, sciences and values, the firm embrace of universally accepted human rights, and the release from the mental paralysis that comes from blindly imitating predecessors and their modes of thought, moral judgements and methods of piety. 

The third principle is that moral awareness, not rites and rituals, is the essence of faith. Current religious outlooks are conspicuously short on moral awareness, in spite of the fact that attention to and philosophical inquiry into morals and ethics dates back to the early years of Arab and Islamic culture. What happened in the interval is that Islamic jurisprudence and law overshadowed moral philosophy and independent human conscience, and outward religiosity and ostentatious pietism prevailed over faith and piety, none of which helped develop or disseminate a systematic and internally coherent Islamic moral philosophy capable of being universalised. 

The absence of this moral and philosophical aspect, deeply connected with spirituality and conscience, allowed worship to descend into empty pieties and rituals and turned religion into a utilitarian process that served to realise earthly gains or gains in the afterlife by chalking up credits in a calculated system of “pious” deeds. It should go without saying that any drive towards awakening, enlightenment and religious reform in the Arab region and the Islamic world must entail a painstaking effort to reform religious ideals and values. This involves coherent and systematic theoretical and philosophical work on the nature of the relationship between faith and morals. 

Genuine religious reformers must work to build an ethics based on the values of freedom, rationality and equality among peoples and an outlook that has greater confidence in mankind. They should try to avoid the rigid, narrow-minded and anti-humanist interpretations and rulings of older jurists and theologians and acknowledge that the literature contains many moral propositions that stem from the legacy of popular beliefs in the surrounding environment and the attitudes of their times. 

In general, there are at least two ways of producing change in the religious sphere. One is performed by prophets, divinely inspired individuals who strive to change public morals in a manner conducive to social reform. The second is through social movements rallying around spiritual figures or leaders intent on generating a spiritual revolution. Both the moral and spiritual aspects are missing in the religious experience of extremists and fanatics who deal with superficialities and outward appearances and for whom religion is merely a way to justify their warped behaviour and intolerant attitudes. 

The fourth principle is the separation of religion from political authority. Linking religion to the latter reduces it to a political ideology and a means of acquiring power, justifying the ways in which power is used, rallying support for strengthening or extending power, and silencing any opposition (damned as “heretics” or “blasphemers” and so on in the takfiri lexicon). 

History is filled with testimonies regarding how the quest for political power has been a poisoned sword that has struck all religions without exception. It is in the interest of religion to ensure that the demarcation between it and the profane world of politics remains firmly in place. Anyone who turns religion into a project to attain political power, or who claims that they need power in order to protect and disseminate the faith, is actually wielding that poisoned sword against religion itself. 

The utilisation of religion for worldly gain, especially in the realm of politics, has always been associated with deceit, fraud, underhandedness, dishonesty and treachery. 


RELIGIONS NOT POLITICS: In an attempt to justify their political projects, the Islamist groups have argued that the prophet himself engaged in politics and acted as a head of state.

However, a more scientific and conscientious examination of the prophetic experience refutes this. The religious and political aspects may have overlapped, but not in the manner understood by Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna, for example. If politics was not separated from religion in the Prophetic project, it was also not governed by it or transformed into a branch of religion.

The commentator on religion Ali Abdel-Razek goes further in his still controversial Islam and the Principles of Rule, first published in the early decades of the last century, when he asks, “how many kings were never prophets or messengers? How many of God’s prophets were never kings? Indeed, most of the prophets that we have known were only messengers… Mohamed was a prophet of a purely religious calling on behalf of the faith. It was untainted by an inclination towards kingship or the call for a state. The prophet had no throne or government. He did not found a monarchy in the political sense of the term. He was a prophet like the prophets who came before him… The Quran is explicit on the fact that the Prophet Mohamed had no rights over his people apart from the right of his prophecy.” 

Linking religion with political authority is the path towards theocracy, a system of government in which the state monopolises the interpretation of scripture and accords the ruler divine powers with respect to the religious text. It is an inherently totalitarian system in which the ruler is invested with both the sovereign authority of the state and divine authority by religious mandate. This system is not noted for its humanity or justice. 

Lastly, there is the need to modernise. Many believe that the lack of sufficient effort on the part of rationalists and the persecution of the advocates of enlightenment were what forestalled genuine religious reform in the Arab region. However, this is only one side of the story, and it is the easier and less critical side. The other side is the absence of the objective economic and social conditions necessary for that enlightenment and rationalism to take hold, flourish and manifest themselves in our lives. 

This absence is the fruit of the fragility of the modernisation of our societies. There can be no enlightenment without modernisation. There is no contradiction between the enlightenment sparked by the mediaeval Arab philosopher Ibn Roshd (Averroes) and the ignorance of this philosopher in the Arab world. This epitomises the difference between a society that has chosen to grow and develop and another society that has lagged behind and continues to do so. It is impossible to recover the thought of Ibn Roshd and what he stood for, going beyond him in the development project, without developing the basic structures of our societies.

That said, it is still possible to justify calls not to wait until the social conditions are ripe for the realisation of enlightenment and democracy. After all, when has history ever been kind to the proponents of thought and culture? The Europeans burned the first scientists who proclaimed that the earth went round the sun as heretics. But European thought continued on its forward march without waiting for democracy to develop, even though that democracy would eventually come with all its practical programmes and appropriate forms. 

This is worth contemplating more closely: European thought is the historical father of European democracy and not the other way around. Democracy was born of pioneering and innovative thought, and it did not precede it. So why do Arab thinkers insist on putting the cart before the horse? Why do they naively insist on saying, “give us democracy, and we’ll give you ideas”? 

There is no fundamental contradiction between those who call for enlightenment first and those who insist that there is no need to wait for political reform in order to engage in intellectual reform. Both views reflect important aspects of the truth. Intellectuals have to struggle in order to generate enlightenment whatever the conditions of their societies. If the conditions are not ripe, they should not fall silent. Rather they should search for alternative ways to prepare society to grasp their ideas. If enough people sympathise with their calls, they can then press for change because at that point the political authorities will be obliged to respond to popular demands or risk losing their legitimacy. 

In the end, we could say that the core principle of Islam is mercy. I suggest that we search for this and that wherever we find it we will find true Islam, regardless of the hair-splitting of those who have claimed to be the guardians of Islam in the course of its long history.

The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.

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