By Muhammad Maroof Shah
Dec 28 2016
Sectarianism in Muslims is mostly a product of ignorance and vested interests. How far it is a product of ignorance is documented by Shahab Ahmed in his What is Islam, one of the really great works on Islam that is destined to be influential and help reorient certain debates on the meaning and constructions of Islam today. First a few remarks on the author and the book.
Shahab Ahmad knew 15 languages including the most important classical languages in which Islamic tradition is expressed. He is extremely careful with regard to sources he quotes and usually deals with original sources and classical authorities to build his arguments. There is little by way of his own interpretation and much by way of letting authorities and little noticed scholars speak in their own words. He asks questions after piling huge mass of facts and marginalized scholars. Let us read him, as he reads others, respectfully and critically. Some of his interpretative manoeuvres can be questioned without, however, failing to derive benefit from his massive eye-opening scholarship.
I think it is best to let author and the sources he quotes or appropriates speak on the question.
He quotes preeminent expert on religions, W. C. Smith, “It is a mistake to think of the Islamic as one of the several ways of being religious. Rather, for fourteen centuries the Islamic has been one of the salient ways of being human.”
He asks a question that Muslim scholars usually identified with jurists or Maulvis/Maulanas of well defined contours must take cognizance: “What, for example, is there, on this accounting, to prevent the classification of philosophy, Sufism, and art as Muslim—that is, “bad” or “one step removed from ideal Islam,” and of law and theology as (authentically) Islamic” He refers to the Brethren of Purity for the forgotten description of ideal Muslim: “the learned, worthy, intelligent, pious, insightful man, a Persian in origin, an Arab in dīn [the Arabic word usually translated as “religion”], a Ḥanīfī in Islam, an ʿIrāqī in education, a Hebrew in astuteness, a disciple of Christ in conduct, a Damascene in piety, a Greek in the sciences, an Indian in expressiveness, a Sufi in subtleties.” (“Ḥanīfī” refers to the pre-Muḥammadan state of being Muslim ascribed by the Qur’ān to the Prophet Ibrāhīm). How Muslims have been tackling diversity is stated thus: Muslims have, in other words, been dealing with difference, diversity and disagreement for fourteen centuries. Muslims have long been well aware that they are not all the same; they have long been aware that their identity as components of universal Islam includes diverse experiences, agreement, disagreement, problems, dilemmas, and predicaments; that they mostly agree to disagree and to be different. One might say that the community of Islam is a community of disagreement— or rather, it is the community of a particular disagreement; it is a community that constitutes and is constituted by its disagreement over the question What is Islam.” He refers to John Walbridge’s “The Islamic Art of Asking Questions: ʿIlm al-Ikhtilāf and the Institutionalization of Disagreement,” about “the institutionalization of disagreement” in Islam, although he confines his treatment to scholarly discourses; see John Walbridge, Abdul Wahhab Shirani, a great jurist cum Sufi, Ibn Rushd, a great jurist cum philosopher and Ibn Arabi a great metaphysician who insightfully wrote on Fiqh as well, besides Tufi and other authorities on Maslaeh of Sharia could be today invoked to help develop a new understanding that could tackle many problems that modernity has posed with regard to understanding and application of Islam. Shahab refers to another brilliant modern scholar Ebrahim Moosa who has observed in this regard: “Each one of us . . . articulates a version of ‘Islam.’...In other words what we really have are multiple representations of being Muslim, embodied by concrete individuals and communities.”
Antidotes to sectarianism have been philosophers, poets and mystics and Shahab tries to show how they have been central to the self understanding of Islamic culture throughout centuries. He asks six questions to all readers who would reduce Islam to their sectarian understanding that excludes them in principle in the name of return to pristine Islam of classical age. He shows how naive it is to invoke such categorization while claiming to represent Islam in all its depth and breadth. One of these question he phrases as “In other words, mainstream Islamic theology (Sunnī and Shīʿī) in the millennium- long age of the madrasa conceptualized God on a philosophical foundation whose logic and epistemology had led its acknowledged progenitor, the philosopher, Ibn Sina—whom we can legitimately call “the man who effectively defined God for Muslims”—to conclusions that were condemned as exemplary Unbelief. How is this Islamic?”
He quotes Mulla Sadra “This art of Hikmah is that sought and requested by the Master of the Messengers—preservation and peace be upon him and his family—in his supplication ‘O My Lord, show us things as they are!’’ and quotes another passage from a different source and then proceeds to build his case for philosophy in Islam. “This passage highlights the philosophers’ conception of their project as directly related to Prophethood and to knowledge of God: the Prophet himself seeks from God precisely the art of Hikmah... In other words, a prophet is an über- philosopher—which, in turn, implies that all philosophers are, for all conceptual and practical purposes, engaged in the same project as are prophets: that of Hikmah, or seeking to know universal truth- as- it- Really- is through the perfection of pure reason (on these terms, one might almost say, upon beholding a great philosopher: “There, but for grace of God, goes a prophet!”).
Sectarianism is linked to such premises as Islam we know about is Truth as such and not an interpretation of Truth (as if history, language, culture and other factors affecting hermeneutics could be bypassed in any attempt to invoke authority of Islam), this particular sect alone will go to heaven ( ignoring salvation or felicity is explicitly linked to use of intellect, moral development and faith rather than elaborate creedal structures or belief systems in the Quran), we represent the prophet and Companions best and guidance is located there (this ignores that there are multiple understandings of the guidance Prophet and Companions stood for or embodied). Poets, philosophers, mystics bring something from the infinite riches of divine wisdom and we are better off taking note of them. After reading Rumi, Hafiz, Ibn Sina, Suharwardi, Bedil, Mulla Sadra, Ghalib, Iqbal – to name only few of mystics, philosophers and poets – one emerges transformed, more humble and more respectful towards the theological other.
After reading Shahab Ahmed one wonders how poor have been our conceptual theological lenses with which to measure or judge the whole world – other schools, traditions, sects – as other. Taking Mansoor’s cross as jurist’s rival is poverty of imagination and absorbing the whole universe of possibilities or diversities is the mark of a real Muslim (as Iqbal said) who submits to Truth and acknowledges that this Truth has infinite faces and can always evade and is ceaselessly involved in newer and newer manifestations or works. The world is a dark alley and prophets are fundamentally interested in the first and last points of our journey and their work is complemented by poets, scientists, mystics and philosophers who lighten up our path to certain extent.
However let us not, for the sake of pseudo-tolerance, forget that there is such thing as heresy (Zandaqa) and orthodoxy and that the Quran is also Furqan which differentiates truth from falsehood. And self-righteousness, tendency to think mine is the best, holier than thou attitude are all unanimously condemned in Islamic tradition and we find “God knows best” (“Wallahu Aalmau Bissawab”) as a qualifying clause to all exegetical/interpretative endeavours. It is not an abstract idea or truth but the extent to which it is realized in us that saves and it requires moral qualifications and who can claim that he has acquired such and such a degree in moral development?
In line with Quranic spirit, philosophy, art and poetry and mysticism all exhort us to be humble towards the Real or Truth in order to receive it (Truth can’t be possessed but received and this needs opening up and removing obstructions that ego creates), to eschew stubborn dogmatic attitude, to listen more and speak less, to let the Other or Love dictate terms rather than dictate to them, to forego attempt to solve problem of religious divergence here and leave it to God there, to resist attempts at meaning closure or finality of interpretation, to attend to life with all its mystery, uncertainty, inexhaustible richness and beauty. To identify a sectarian ideologue one can apply a golden test “Empty vessels make much noise.” Truth overpowers us and makes one dumb. “Ripeness is all.” “The rest is silence.