By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam
September 25, 2015.
(Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009)
- This exposition of the dichotomy between the popular theology and ‘deen’ of Islam reinforces Sultan Shahin Saheb’s call to create “a coherent theology of peace and pluralism, consistent in all respects with the teachings of Islam, and suitable for contemporary and future societies.”
To begin with a clear distinction must be made between Islamic theology as it has evolved over time and the pristine din of Islam as was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and God’s blessings be upon him) and is preserved in the Qur’an.
All major religions had their births at given geographical regions and era, and as they spread out to new lands, they were interpreted and adapted differently to suit local customs, temperaments, and needs. Thus, with time, the core message that their founders preached got superimposed with different layers of interpretation and secondary materials, written or oral, as part of theological development. These, in Islam, included the Hadith, the Sira, the Classical Sharia Law, as well as the opinions (Rai) and consensus (Ijma) of past scholars – collectively, they constitute its secondary sources.
Evolved over some eight to twelve generations, across the capitals of the expansive domain of Islam by scholars, Imams and Ulema of diverse background, doctrinal orientation and worldview, the secondary sources have acquired encyclopaedic volumes and remain highly porous, divergent, fragmented and at times, self-contradictory. Thus, different individuals, agencies, groups and states can pick conveniently from them to legitimize their views and deeds in the whole range of matters concerning their societies. Such matters could be of social, political or theological nature, or pertain to statecraft, educational curriculum and women’s empowerment and status, for example. Besides, the Secondary sources feed all kinds of Sectarian division and ideological fragmentation, while the terror outfits of the era – notably ISIS and its affiliates cherry pick bits and pieces from them to appropriate heinous crimes against humanity within the ambit of Islam, thus bringing stigma to the global Muslim community and deepening the ongoing divide between Islam and the rest of the world.
The ‘din’ of Islam, on the other hand is enshrined in the Qur’an, the infallible word of God that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in a fixed span of time (610-632 AD). As it has been preserved word for word in the memory of the Huffaz (memorizers of the Qur’an) down the successive generations since the Prophet’s era, its text remains unchanged and thus enjoys its repeatedly acclaimed divine protection (6:115, 6:34, 15:9, 18:27, 41:42, 85:22). It is thus free from any alteration, omission, addition, and embellishment and preserves the doctrines and dictates of nascent faith that the Prophet preached.
Unlike the winding, shifting, retrogressing and constantly expanding, elaborating, illustrating, embellishing, ennobling and fantasizing narratives of its secondary sources, the Qur’an is immensely more focused and straightforward. It combines the spiritual with the temporal and regards man’s obligation to man (Huquq Al Ibad) as an essential part of ‘din’ along with obligations to God (Huquq Al Lah). Thus, on one hand it demands an uncompromising faith (Iman) in God and observance of spiritual rituals (prayer, fasting ad hajj), on the other it expounds a whole package of moral imperatives such as doing good and righteous deeds, curbing one’s base instincts, sharing of wealth with the poor, uprightness in justice; deliverance of women from various entrenched taboos, conjugal oppression and dehumanization; protecting, empowering and enfranchising religious minorities; freedom of religion, fair payment for goods and services, financial support to the needy, use of intellect, striving for excellence, cultivating such universal virtues as mercy, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, moderation; repulsion of all forms of mental defilements – greed, jealousy, hatred, animosity, pride, arrogance, prejudice, bigotry, contempt and derision of others and so forth. In a word, it offers a complete code of life based on pluralism, humanism, use of reason, spirit of enterprise and collaboration with the rest of humanity, even erstwhile foes in all that is good for humanity. The author is not quoting verse numbers, as at least there are some 500 clear verses covering the universal tenets of Islam and all these verses can be accessed in his joint publication  that has now been posted at this website in its entirety.
The problem today facing Muslim world is that its Ulema regard the Qur’an purely as a divine litany, while venerating the Islamic theological sources as the true repository of Islamic teaching. Accordingly, they exhort their Muslim audience to learn Qur’anic recitation, commit some of the Suras or even the whole Qur’an into memory, meditate by repeatedly uttering Qur’anic phrases glorifying and praising God (Subhan Allah, Alhamdulillah), celebrating His Oneness (La Ilaha Il Allah) and Greatness (Allah u Akbar), and send blessings on the Prophet. However, they do not lay any emphasis on probing the Qur’an to grasp the fundamentals of its message – its definitive commandments (Ahkamat) that relate to man’s obligation to man (Huquq al Ibad) and are relevant to the existential issues of the era.
From a different perspective, practically all Islamic religious narratives this day are of strictly spiritual nature, centred around the Pillars of Faith, with a profound emphasis on prayer, fasting, hajj and mandatory charity (Zakat) and little space for the universal tenets of Islam that pertain to the rights and welfare of the Muslims and the broader humanity (Huquq al Ibad). Thus, in practical terms, the functional trajectories of Islam that led to its phenomenal rise in its early centuries have been frozen in the pages of the Qur’an and at best occupy the back-stage of Islamic thoughts, while its spiritual tenets that had inspired its early followers to internalize its functional paradigms are reduced to merely utterances, physical movements and supplications and the din of Islam as practiced and internalized by the early Muslims has virtually mortified. As the poet Iqbal put it: “Bujhi Ishq Ki Aag Andher Hai = Musalman Nahin Khak Ka Dher Hai” [the flame of faith has extinguished and the Muslim has turned into a pile of ash]
The bitter and shameful truth is, the traditional Ulema preach practically the same thing and cite practically the same illustrative examples, tales and episodes as their counterparts of the medieval era – dating back to more than a millennium from this day. Recurring exposure to antiquated materials purports to retard the mental development of their 21st century listeners, and renders the traditional Ulema of Islam as agents of retrogression, unfit to take any part in the numerous fields, activities and arenas of modern life. As a result of this deep disconnect between the antiquated and divergent Islamic theological scholarship and the needs, issues and priorities of this era, the former fails to offer a cohesive era-compatible code to the global Muslim community of the era. Far more dangerously, the porosity of Islam’s theological narratives enables the extremist and fanatic factions of Ulema to create and propagate their personal versions of Islam, and become community leaders, without necessarily having a sound knowledge base, experience or exposure of the ever growing themes and issues of the day, and often, without any clear understanding of the essentials of the Qur’anic message as their religious knowledge is largely restricted to the secondary sources and Qur’anic recitation.
Infuriated, challenged, daunted or overwhelmed by the achievements of the Western/ modern world and shocked and aggrieved by Islam’s decline, the orthodox Ulema dismiss the West as an abode of Shaytan and aspire to create a separate identity for the global Muslim community in defiance of the Qur’an explicit emphasis on pluralism and humanism. In their Friday (Congregation prayer) sermons, they preach a divide between Islam and all other faith communities and thus block integration of the Muslims with the mainstream societies in Muslim minority countries, underplay the role of universal knowledge, undermine the prodigal advances of modern civilization, restrict the Qur’anic message to Islam’s pillars of faith (spiritual dimension), and underplay the universal dimensions of its message that connects Islam with the modern pluralistic world. Thus they have virtually reduced Islam to a static medieval creed that constantly benchmarks against its achievements of that era, remains oblivion to the over-riding civilisational issues and challenges of this era and wittingly or unwittingly, plays in the hands of the terror outfits who entertain common aspirations of a separate global identity for the Muslims.
Touched summarily, the issues noted above are very grave and have combined together to push the Muslims into a state of anarchy, cognitive dissonance, dysfunction, ignorance, denial and clerical domination, that, if not checked at the earliest, can have potentially dreadful consequences for them as well as broader humanity – thanks to their blind submission to their antiquated theological sources and remoteness from the Qur’anic ideals and paradigms.
Hence there is a pressing need to restrict if not abandon the propagation of Islamic theological sciences and in its place propagate the liberating, expansive and intellectually effervescent and eternal paradigms of the Qur’an. Read in its historic context, seeking its best meaning and in accordance with its guidelines , the Qur’an can offer an antidote to all the pernicious and restrictive fallouts of the present theology loaded version of Islam as summarily reviewed above.
Unfortunately the cobweb of Islamic theology offers a host of doctrinal benefits to its male clergy/ custodians, notably, exclusive lawful sexual liberties, undiluted patriarchy and money. Thus, it appropriates sex-slavery, marriage with a minor girl, polygamy, beating and oppression of women in wedlock, various kinds of misogynic customs including honour killing; and also offers a running income as preaching Islam has now become a profession. However, the Qur’an or for that matter Islam as a faith is not the personal property of its patriarchic and retrogressive Ulema. There is growing awareness among the leaders of the secular world that the faith of Islam as enshrined in the Qur’an is being grievously exploited by its in-house preachers and custodians and it is this group, and a rising community of progressive and enlightened Muslims who in time must orient the faith of Islam towards its epicentre – the Qur’an with as little of theological underpinning as essential.
In sum, Muslims must evolve “a new theology, a coherent theology of peace and pluralism, consistent in all respects with the teachings of Islam, and suitable for contemporary and future societies."
The author is pleased to inform that his joint publication, Essential Message of Islam, may serve as a launching pad for a “new theology” based on the essentials of the Qur’anic message. Time will hopefully reach to a wider circle than it presently commands.
The article is complementary to, though more broad based and critical than my following referenced article that concludes as follows :
“In light of an undeniable influence of Islam’s theological discourses (including the Classical Sharia and the Sira) in the veritable petrifaction of the Islamic faith as enshrined in the Qur’an, and in feeding the twin terrible menace of this era – Radicalization of Islam and Islamophobia, it is imperative for the Muslims to treat their theological discourses in their historical perspective as classical subjects in the higher academy, as happened in the past with other major theological disciplines – notably the Asbab Al Nuzul and diverse schools of law. Since their primary source of guidance - the Qur’an is preserved in its original form, and free from all kinds of lethal and sinister accretions and space time specificity as with the Classical Sharia, Hadith and the early biographic accounts (Sira), they can home in on it to evolve a broader, altruistic and universal interpretation of its message.”
1. Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, Maryland, USA 2009.
2. Pope Francis Touches The Soul Of The Qur’an By Seeking An Adequate Interpretation: Muslims, Their Ulema And Scholars Across The World Must Follow His Suggestion To Avoid Growing Confusion In Religion
3. The Twin Growing Menace: Petrifaction And Radicalization In Islam And Islamophobia – Are They Interconnected? How Best They Can Be Diffused? An SOS to the Muslim Intelligentsia, Leadership and Ulama!https://www.newageislam.com/the-war-islam/the-twin-growing-menace-petrifaction/d/8686
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.