“It should not come as a surprise to discover that the first book on the future of Islam was written by an Englishman: Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. I think Blunt was spot on when he argued that the future survival of Islam depends on an internal reform of law and ethics. But he was sensible enough to suggest that such reforms are best undertaken by Muslims themselves.”
“Futures of Islam, like futures of most cultures, are open to numerous pluralistic and democratic possibilities. The emphasis of my own work has been on shaping pluralistic and sustainable futures for Muslim societies. But I have to admit that Muslims, as a whole, are not very good at looking towards the future or exploring alternative future paths. We tend to be nostalgic about the glories of our history and fatalistic about our current problems.”
author of The Future of Muslim Civilisation
Thinking, let alone writing, about the futures of Islam or the Muslim world is fraught with complexities. Theologically speaking, future in Islamic parlance lies well beyond earthly life and humans are accorded no role in shaping it, except that of earning one’s own salvation through faith. The prerequisites of that eschatology reveal themselves to everyday believers through the pious acts from the lives of numerous forebears in the faith, with the Prophet being the ultimate model to follow. But for many who view the world of Islam from outside, the lethal impact of the promise of an Islamic hereafter is demonstrated through imagery associated with suicide bombers, interlaced with fantasies about the 72 heavenly virgins. In thinking sociologically about the Islamic faith’s future, however, we may start from another vantage point.
Strange bedfellows: The convergence of views between the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the Islamic State (ISIS), or for that matter any radical Islamist outfit, on what Islam is, is intriguing. Both Ayaan and ISIS believe that misanthropy, hatred and intolerance of other religions and irreligion, crude expressions of misogyny and all other imaginable tropes and manifestations of medievalism are inherent in the scriptures of Islam. While Ayaan says, on the basis of her reading of the scriptures and on the basis of her own tragic experiences in life, that Islam is incorrigible, ISIS would argue, based on the same scriptures, that talks about reform are heretical and punishable by death. In essence, both deny the intertextuality and interpretability of the scriptures and attribute to them a certain aura of mathematical precision and cultural inflexibility. If fundamentalism is an approach that insists on interpreting texts away from their contexts, both Ayaan and ISIS cannot be described in any other terms. That said, one must clarify that it is not to equate the two and draw moral parallels: one is an argument, however disagreeable, while the other is a despicable abomination.
To be fair, most of what Ayaan says on the scriptures may appear true on the surface, if quotable quotes alone constitute a faith. Similarly, it may appear to some mathematically religious and spiritually monochromatic Muslims that ISIS is implementing true Islam. It is difficult to argue with both the parties for the scriptural quotes that they shoot at you are incontrovertible. The historical events they marshal into their arguments are beyond dispute. It is another matter that you can throw at them scriptural verses and historical events that convey exactly the opposite on most subjects. At the core of the present predicament in Islam is an increasingly popular approach to the texts that deny their discursive dynamism.
A host of compelling perspectives from within and outside increasingly challenge the culture of ossification and textualism that prevails across the spectrum within mainstream Islam today. But the communities of believers in general and the sects/groups/schools/organisations they belong to remain—with exceptions—impervious to any whiff of fresh air and steadfastly loyal to the many mutually abrogating and exclusivist versions of literalist textualism. These versions, usually at loggerheads with each other and subtly or overtly dismissive of each other’s Islamic credentials, can come together for self-preservation on rare occasions when the textualist and ethics-neutral approach they stand for is under threat. The best example of this rare union of vested interests in our context is the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. You hear the name of this manifest inanity mostly in the context of a conflict between Islamic jurisprudence and universal values of freedom, justice and equality, such as the present debate on triple divorce. We heard its name prominently for the first time when it claimed to represent the voice of the entire community against that of a frail, old, poor and arbitrarily divorced Muslim woman—Shah Bano Begum.
Critique of textualism: The liberal voices that interpret the faith in terms of both its ethical cosmology and its adaptability to modernity are no monolith. Although they do not enjoy much support among everyday believers and established sects/groups at present, and in spite of being misconstrued as a procrustean exercise, their mainstreaming is the only hope of liberating Islam from the anachronism, dehumanisation, explicit or implicit violence, intolerance, hyper-identitarianism and atavism of its self-styled defenders.
Islam, as an inclusive faith and as a humane culture, is facing existential threats not from its arch rivals but from its ardent followers. The solution therefore is to seek endogenous remedies because, on the one hand, imagining a future beyond faith is too utopian a dream to achieve and, on the other, like other traditions, the history and textual corpus of Islam could offer ample resources to self-rejuvenate and fight the internal decay.
However, the works that fall within the broad category of liberal Islam are yet to transcend the domain of the academic study of Islam into a public discourse and a social project accessible to the laity and to the clergy. There are five reasons that stand in the way of their outreach and popularisation among the Muslims. First, the clergy, of course, are very turf-conscious and resist any non-clerical inroads into their closely guarded territory. As Abdolkarim Soroush famously said in his book Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam, “The clergy are not defined by their erudition or their virtue but by their dependency on religion for their livelihood.” Second, the laity has been made to believe that any interpretation coming from outside the canonical traditions defined and monopolised by the clergy lacks religious validity and salvational potential. Third, the works of liberal Islam remain largely couched in the terminology and theoretical framework of contemporary social sciences, making them stand out from the familiar idiom and structure of traditional books on religion.
Fourth, the general approach of all these works denies the now dominant trend of what Soroush calls ‘the obesity of religion’. This point requires some elaboration. As a result of efforts, mostly from votaries of political Islam, to present Islam as a comprehensive ideology capable of successfully vanquishing and replacing the dominant ‘isms’ of the 20th century such as communism and capitalism, the faith has been entrusted with far more burdens than it was originally meant to carry. This is how Soroush describes it: “The greatest pathology of religion that I have noticed after the revolution is that it has become plump, even swollen. Many claims have been made in the name of religion and many burdens have been put on its shoulders. It is neither possible nor desirable for religion, given its ultimate mission, to carry out such a burden. This means purifying religion, making it lighter and more buoyant, in other words, rendering religion more slender by sifting, whittling away, erasing the superfluous layers off the face of religiosity.”
Fifth, and most important, is the paradigm shift that distinguishes works of liberal Islam from traditional Islamic scholarship and worldview. These works, unlike in traditional works of theology and jurisprudence, take as their primary point of reference and as the normative core of the faith the ethical values that they derive from the scriptures rather than the contextually interpreted strictures and narratives that are often amenable to narrow and illiberal inferences. Such ethical values include justice, freedom, equality, human dignity, compassion, care and the like which are universal in their scope and beyond spatio-temporal limitations. This paradigm steers clear of the confessional duplicities and ethical contradictions that mark the conventional Islamic worldview.
For example, if justice and freedom are fundamental to the worldview of Islam, Muslims must accept democracy and shun majoritarian tyranny regardless of whether they are in majority or minority, thus rejecting all notions of theocracy and embracing modern ideas of equal citizenship. If equality and human dignity are central to Islam, how can Muslims continue to promote and defend rules and practices that militate against gender equality? If compassion and human dignity are core values of Islam, the rejection of primitive forms of punishment in favour of more evolved forms, such as imprisonment, becomes a social and religious imperative. In short, this approach shifts the focus away from the peripheral to the core and from the clinical and the clerical to the moral-ethical, deriving from the faith itself the wherewithal to prove it equal to the challenges of modernity.
The scholars of liberal Islam replace the static idea of faith and culture in Islam with a dynamic notion, while being apologetic about neither their Islam nor their modernity. (For a broad understanding of their themes and positions, please read Liberal Islam: A Source Book, edited by Charles Kurzman). They have produced a rich body of knowledge that not only addressed the vital questions of Islam’s coexistence with contemporary streams, but also sought to reform or subvert many problematic ideas and notions that acquired the status of unquestionable religious tenets over a long time. The areas of enquiry they delved into and the fresh ideas and inferences they came up with included a critique of theocracy and Islamic majoritarianism, advocacy for democracy as a political system and as an inclusive culture, promotion of human rights, women’s rights, the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries and the importance of equal citizenship, freedom of thought and expression, and human progress. These are precisely the areas in which the Muslim religious leaderships either totally failed their following or indulged in what Mohammed Arkoun called ‘mimetic overbidding’ (conferring an Islamic origin on every admirable achievement made in the modern West).
Three approaches: It is impossible to imagine a future for any faith or worldview in the absence of freedom of expression. The greatest barrier to human progress and cultural effervescence in Muslim societies across the globe can be traced to the system of censorship, either in the mind or in the structures of socio-political control. This emanates primarily from the fact that religious texts are seen as the abode of eternal truth, out of bounds for critical and rational enquiry. It becomes problematic when religious texts become the yardstick by which all other texts are assessed. “This is precisely the biggest problem in the dominant Arab-Islamic culture. The religious text in this culture is simultaneously cultural, social and political. The truth in it is the mother of all truths. Neither disagreement from it nor rebellion against it is allowed. It is like a law that governs your life and thought. Someone who has a different view is not described as a thinker, but as a blasphemer,” wrote Adonis, poet and enfant terrible of contemporary Arab culture. He goes on to explain the implications of this peculiar plight: “The problem with such a culture is that the mind turns captive to the religious text that is adhered to. The truth is not derived from reality or experience, but from text—that is language. In this process, there is the abrogation of reality. In fact, abrogation of language itself as it is closed from inside in this approach. It ceases to say anything new and loses dynamic ties with the world and things.” (Translation from Arabic is mine.)
"God granted Satan absolute freedom of action and expression for eternity. It’s the best model for Muslims to emulate."
Soroush approaches this question from another perspective. Unlike Adonis, who speaks from the position of an independent critic rather than a critical insider, Soroush does not repudiate or problematise the claims to truth, but brings an altogether different argument: “I have distinguished between two kinds of Islam: Islam of identity and Islam of truth. In the former, Islam is a guise for cultural identity and a response to what is considered the ‘crisis of identity’. The latter refers to Islam as a repository of truths that point towards the path of worldly and otherworldly salvation…. I think one of the greatest theoretical plagues of the Islamic world, in general, is that people are gradually coming to understand Islam as an identity rather than truth…..I believe that the Islam of identity should yield to the Islam of truth. The latter can coexist with other truths. The former, however, is, by its very nature, belligerent and bellicose. It is the Islam of war, not the Islam of peace. Two identities would fight each other, while two truths would cooperate.”
Despite fundamental differences in approaches, both Adonis and Soroush are highlighting two fundamental issues plaguing the world of Islam: textual tyranny and hyper-identitarianism. Mohammed Arkoun adds another fascinating dimension to this debate, bringing in his take on Islam’s historical epistemology and what he calls the ‘mytho-historical mind’ of the Muslims. From his earliest to recent publications, Arkoun “sought to raise the question of the cognitive status of what Muslim theologians, exegetes, historians and jurists have long thought of as revelation, a concept which they have taken, without further question, as a given. In thus resting their elaborate formulations on a notion, which itself remains immune to the operations of critical reason, Muslim authors were responsible for creating a tradition which, though rich and intricate on its own terms, depended for its very potency on a vast terrain of the unthought and the unthinkable.” (Islam: to Reform or to Subvert).
An Islamic prototype for free thought and action: Part of the unthought and the unthinkable in Islam is the lesson to be gleaned from the parting of ways between God and Satan, as described in the Quran. When Satan rebelled against God’s command and threatened to lead humanity astray until the day of judgement, God had the option of doing a Khomeini and deciding to finish off Satan once and for all (in the memorable words of V.S. Naipaul in response to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, ‘an extreme form of literary criticism!’). But he decided to let Satan go and do as he pleased. In other words, God granted Satan absolute freedom of expression and action for eternity. As the Malayali Marxist intellectual K.E.N. recently stressed, the Quranic narrative about God’s decision to grant Satan full freedom is perhaps the best model for Muslims to emulate in matters of freedom of thought and expression. Once they do that, the prospect of a civilisational ascent, as happened during the days of the Abbasid and Andalusian glories, will again beckon.
(Shajahan Madampat is a cultural critic, writing mostly in Malayalam and English and occasionally in Arabic.)