By Moin Qazi
There is a great deal of talk about reform and reinterpretation of Islam to make it relevant and responsive to modern context. For decades there have been rumblings, both muted and vocal, stressing this need. There have also been consistent attempts to make the clerics recognize the non-clerical perspective in the formulation of an Islamic response to the multiple transitions of our times. It is now being universally acknowledged in Islamic circles that Liberal and progressive interpretations which can answer our doubts and confusions need nuanced readings of the Qur’an and Sunna in the light of multiple perspectives.
Reform is an unruly horse that can go berserk unless it is properly saddled. In several societies it is the hardliners that have served as vigilantes and sentinels of their faith. Their resistance helps in winnowing the weaker strands in the process of formulation of new trajectories of thought and discourse. The unruly forces can acquire Kafkaesque proportions and demonize the entire discourse. Remember, Akbar is considered a great liberal king. But we must not forget that he was actually trying to subvert Islam by reinventing the faith.
It was Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī, the great mystic and theologian, who was largely responsible for the reassertion and revival in India of orthodox Sunnite Islam as a reaction against the syncretistic religious tendencies prevalent of the time, that were threatening to usurp authentic Islam. Persecuted in his times, he is today revered as a saint and savior of Islam.
Darah Shikoh was similarly a great liberal of his times, but don’t we know that some of his writings were truly blasphemous. Both Akbar and Dara Shikoh were truly secular individuals, but their creative liberty eroded some of Islam’s most cherished values and traditions.
Hardliners have their own unique place in all discourses and their presence helps in reining unchecked and anarchic impulses. The most sagely advice for the marquee thinkers and promoters of new paradigms is: No matter who you are, how experienced you are, and how knowledgeable you think you are, always delay judgment. Give others the privilege to explain themselves. What you see may not be the reality. Never conclude for others. This is why we should never focus only on the surface and judge others without understanding them first.
We must remember that traditional scholarship has emerged out of the labors of scholars who lived a life of hermits over several decades hibernating away from the daily mart of economic and social strife. Pontification may be easy, but we must make sure that we are not blurring the wafer thin line that demarcates faith and heresy.
The process of reformation has to be gradual; it cannot be seismic and convulsive, as most radicalists tend to believe and attempt. Sadly several Islamic reform movements have been driven by ulterior motives and hence protagonists of all such initiatives should appreciate the apprehensions and misgivings of the ulemas. Imam Ghazali is on record saying that once he opened the doors of doubts he could not close them. It was his firm resolve not to allow these doubts to tinker with his faith that sealed his dilemma.
Endowed as we are with limited vision and cognitive abilities, we must realize that we cannot keep continually keeping the doors of doubts open; lest Satan will keep walking in. Despite being an intellectual colossus, Ibn Rush acknowledged about his work: “God knows every single letter, and perhaps God will accept my excuse and forgive my stumbling in His bounty, generosity, munificence and excellence –- there is no God but He!”
It is unfair to tar the entire clerical community with the same brush of obscurantism. If there are regressive elements among the clerics there also heretical minds among the modernists. Modernists cannot usurp the umpireship of the game. We need a level playing field where both the clerical and libertarian fraternities embrace each other
There are several strands in the traditionalist thought that bristle with flashes of liberalism and there is no reason that these green shoots will turn dense. Clerical thought is no longer monochromatic — multiviison is taking shape.
Many scholars are strong proponents of ijtihad (independent rasoning), the process of arriving at new interpretations of Islamic law through critical reasoning, rather than blindly following the views of past scholars. In the early centuries of Islam, the process of ijtihad was an important contributor to the shaping of Islamic law.
Muslim society is ridden with entrenched sectarianism with a diversity of hues and stripes: Sunni, Shiite, Barelvi, Deobandi, Ahmadi, and Mahdi Muslims – all of whom consider each other kafirs (non-Muslims)? Most of the leading lights of these sects lack familiarity with complex field of Islamic political history and hence do not have the tools for grappling the modern challenges with are confronting Islam.
The fundamental problem is that the religion that once saved Greek philosophy from the European Dark Ages now feels that it is under assault from a secular modern world, but many of its leaders have forsaken the interpretive tools and traditions that could otherwise have helped it cope with the present complexities.
For an idea to become legitimate, its foundations must stand on all four legs — reason, tradition, truth and belief. Liberals must continue to seek accommodation with them as they have done in the past. Plural societies, though, can be built by interrogating our long cherished traditions and withstanding the winds of either heresy or obscurantism.
Religiosity is good as long as it does not retard the organic evolution of a thought and belief system. Both the traditionalists and modernists must enlarge the prism through which they view each other; this will create accommodation for both while at the time clarifying their respective perspectives. The world is now too complex, too interconnected, too globalised to be divided into ‘black’ and ‘white’: ’the abode of Islam’ and ‘the abode of unbelief’. The overall message is: break the monolith wherever it comes from. The fundamentalists must realize that their blind literalism could lead them to follow the letter of the law, but betray the intents of foundational texts. We must not forget that the shar’iah (Islamic code) was made for man, and not man for the shari’ah.
In our quest for theological interpretations we must not lose sight of certain fundamental beliefs. Islam (and religion) is about being a good human being. About showing empathy, compassion and charity to others. About seeking strength and comfort through prayer and communal bonhomie. About reaching out to the unknown and seeking guidance and mercy in world. That is what Islam is for the ordinary man, and that is what we need to rescue it from the literalists.
For Muslims, it is a good time to pause, to reflect, and to attempt to re-locate the main features of, to re-discover, Islam. God says in the Qur’an that a people’s condition will not be changed until they change what is in themselves (Q13:11). Muslims have free will and the power to rebel and surrender. Thus, he or she is responsible and the maker of his or her own image. “Every soul is held in pledge for what he earns.” (Q74:38) “And the human being shall have nothing but what he strives for.” (Q53:30) We need to be earnest in our efforts to let the path be enlightened.
Alfaz-o-Maani Mein Tafawat Nahin Lekin
Mullah Ki Azan Aur, Mujahid Ki Azan Aur
Parwaz Hai Dono Ki Issi Aik Faza Mein
Kargas Ka Jahan Aur Hai, Shaheen Ka Jahan Aur
(There is not a speck of difference in words and meanings
But the clarion call of a prayer caller and guerilla are poles apart
The vulture and falcon soar in the same skies
But the world of falcon and vulture are far different) — Sir Muhammad Iqbal