By Mehraj Din
Since times immemorial, religion has been considered as the backbone in every civilisational discourse. And history helps us to contextualise the inherent sacredness of religion in human civilisation. The universally accepted principle in talking about any form of knowledge is preceded by the question of being trained in the sources of that field of knowledge. So, dislocating Islam from its onto-epistemological context and locating it within alien epistemes, often does not help.
What we have experienced is the rise of a particular section within the Muslim world which is under the conscious/unconscious influence of that western onto-epistemological process, especially post-renaissance secular liberal reason, trying to rethink or requalify the agreed-upon principles (like veil, issues of inheritance, polygamy, capital punishment et al) without much understanding of their “underlying contexts”. Modernity as an ideology has raised intellectually diverse issues for the Muslim world. New slogans like “traditional Islam is irrelevant”, “traditional understanding is parochial”, and an “outcry for an Islamic liberation theology”, are emerging from Eurocentric experts on Islam and their representatives. The idea is of bringing forth something called ‘Reformed Islam’. It is easy to criticise the principles and ideals (usul) of Islam but difficult to find new ones.
The gift post-theological secular Cartesian rationalism brought was the hazard of dealing with Islam without the “pre-requisite knowledge of revelation”, and dubbing it simply as mere “clerical hegemony”. What we fail to understand are the sensitivities of speaking about and interpreting religion, especially Islam. But is that due to a post—enlightenment minimalistic attitude of the west towards religion? Or a positivist pursuit to deal with religion as a mere “object” of experimentation?
Islam is defined by the creator as a “Deen”, which altogether stands on a different epistemological premise than the western construct called religion. We approach the question of the coherence and the truth of Islam obliquely. The distinctiveness of Islam is due to its “meta-rational” character and sacred “metaphysical construct” inspired from the infinite “wisdom/intellect” of the Lord. What we misappropriate are the “underlying sensitivities”, and, unfortunately, Islam is degraded from a powerful reference of human civilisation to a mere worldview, then into an ideology or a ritualistic system, finally ending up an “object” of interpretation and experimentation.
The issue also is eschewing the basic criteria of rigour in domain knowledge. Now, almost every other individual is striving to be a “reformer” (mujadid) even if he doesn’t have the necessary pre-requisite knowledge/tools of understanding Islam. Some people are agitated due to the monopoly enjoyed, though not without qualification, by “a particular section i.e. Ulama”, on speaking about Islam. The libertarian intellectuals argue that every Muslim must be allowed to deliberate and discuss the issues related to Islam and the Muslim world. What we fail to understand is that Islam is actually a “revelation”, a meta-religion based on an onto-epistemological premise manifested in the Quran and deliberated through the equally inspirational authority of the Prophet (SAW) through Sunnah, which stands on an equal footing with Quran.
Looking through the prism of history; Islam underwent three important phases, from the purely traditional via medieval into a modern phase, in its historical development. What I am more concerned about in this article is the origin and impact of post—enlightenment secular reason which resulted in a cataclysmic paradigm shift in understanding and interpretation of Islam. The enlightenment project forced us to understand/analyse/interpret Islam through the eyes of a modern project — modernity – which altogether “divorced God” from public discourse and stood diametrically opposite to the essentialist discourse of Islam. Muslims suffered a serious blow and their worldview suffered via the ‘disbanding’ of Islam as a ‘crazy irrational epiphany’.
Two parallel interpretational narratives are visible in contemporary Muslim societies; one evolved under the influence of the enlightenment project, which is manifested in the “modernist narrative”, like reformation in the Sir Syedian context, rethinking in the context of Arkoun, modernist in a Fazlur Rehmanian context vis-à-vis the “orthodox/traditional narrative” of Deobandi and Salafi context; who disband any kind of engagement with the multidimensional challenges brought in by modernity. Islam has been obfuscated between the rim and axis of traditional and reformative hermeneutics, and both the narratives are obsessed in self-glorifying their respective epistemes, labeling every other approach as antagonistic to their essentialist interpretation of Islam. Islam is not here to corroborate the ideological assumptions and presumptions of Greek mythology, socialist economy, Machiavellian polity, Kantian rationality, Neitzschean modernity, Freudian sexuality, Derridian deconstructionist dichotomy, Zizekian ideology or Heideggerian identity. Even though we cannot just put them into the dustbin of history like our “traditional/orthodox” class has done with modernity. Understanding and engaging with these trends is the only panacea for reconstructing the Muslim world.
I, in no way, am trying to demean or deconstruct the indubitable influence of the above mentioned luminaries who have an unequivocal contribution in their respective “fields and contexts”. Rather, I am trying to shift the focus from the “superficial” to the “core” question which is “What is the reason for the existence of religion?” and the idea of “Marifah of God and its practical manifestation in society through individual and collective pursuit for establishing a just approach towards the Creator as well as the Creation”.
The contemporary orthodox/traditionalist religious class lives in a “self-glorifying illusion of pietistic abstention”, and rejects any engagement with the dominant narrative emerging from the “Other”— western – worldview. But, does it really represent the attitude of our pious predecessors? And is that fruitful when Islam as an ideology and identity is losing space in the public sphere? Muslim civilisation is replete with a trans-historical confident presentation, interpretation and manifestation of Islam, and always continued to defend the ship of “Islam” amidst the stormy tides of desacralisation. The intra-faith “polemical rhetoric” has also already done much harm to Islamic discourse, and “demonising” the multidimensional challenges without any intellectual engagement has fetched us the title “parochial idealist utopians”.
The liberal and progressive class of Muslim societies, who belong to different fields and faculties with reasonable intellectual leanings and sophisticated diverse readings often only seek to bombard Islamists with literary/philosophical terms; often with people from a madrasa background. There is no monopoly in religion but academically speaking, is there a pre-requisite to approach/speak/write about any field of knowledge especially when we are dealing with the “revelation”.
Undoubtedly, “secular liberal reason” has liberated Muslims to a great extent, so that even if they don’t know the types of “waw” used in the Quran, they don’t feel wary about ‘using’ their quasi-interpretational skills in dealing with the sources of Islam. The Quran unequivocally contextualises this disparity when Allah says “Are those who know and don’t know equal”? Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said “Whosoever ascribes to me something which I have never said should find his/her place in hell”. Abu Bakr was conscious of ascribing something unintentionally or mistakenly to the Prophet and burned/dumped his whole hadith literature even while being his closest companion. Why did he do that? Because he knew the sensitivities involved in dealing/ascribing/speaking anything about religion.
Some Kashmiri columnists are in pursuit of “liberating” Islam from the clutches of parochial Mullahs and ideologically stagnant Muslim intellectuals. These ‘intellectuals’, the mujadids of Kashmiri society, are not even aware about the types of “waw” used in the Quran, types of “qasam” used in the Quran, are not even able to pronounce the legalities like “qati al dalalah” and “zani al dalalah” in the Quran! What ‘knowledge’ if they don’t even identify or understand the place of Hadith vis-à-vis Quran, don’t know the types of Hadith, don’t know what is “thawabit” and “mutagayirat”!
Tariq Ramadan’s reply, when asked by Mehdi Hassan in the Oxford Union ‘Head-to-Head’ interview about Richard Dawkins’ argument against Islam seems to transcend the boundaries and addresses all the non-specialists speaking about Islam. Ramadan said, “Richard Dawkins is as illiterate and ignorant about Islam as he is knowledgeable in science”. Unfortunately, some “harfan maulas” in this part of the world are not only “ignorant in the respective areas of interest but also in fields where their pen and speech are no less than an abomination”. If the quasi-intellectual libertarians are so interested in speaking about Islam then they must equip themselves with the necessary pre-requisites, starting from the foundational epistemological construct — “sources of knowledge” – to the “tawaturi” understanding of Islam and then interpret/speak/write/criticise and deconstruct the “agreed upon” principles and understanding of Islam.
—The writer is a research scholar at the University of Kashmir