By Dr. Adis Duderija, NewAgeIslam.com
It would be fair to assert that every religious tradition in human history has highly valued and continues to highly value knowledge, good deeds and spirituality (i.e. in sense of performance of some kind of religious rituals) however differently they were/are defined or put into practice.
What is interesting to explore, and this is the aim of this short article, is the idea of the relative importance placed on these three pillars of religious tradition one vis-a-vis the other. This could be accomplished both comparatively (i.e. across different religions) and well as within the various strands of a particular religious tradition. It could also be examined chronologically tracing any possible patterns or shifts in patterns. An examination of this ‘prioritising’ is useful as it would give us an insight into the ‘ideal’ types of theologies prevalent among the adherents of religious traditions and perhaps be used as a method for developing typologies of theologies.
What I mean by prioritising or the relative importance given to one of the pillars in relation to the other can be best illustrated with the following example. Imagine you had six hours a day to dedicate to expanding your knowledge (not necessarily religious in the narrow term of the word but inclusive of it), doing good deeds or engaging in spiritual rituals? Percentagewise how would you ideally divide this time up? The answer to this question would, in my view, be indicative of the type of theology you subscribe to.
In what follows I‘d like to briefly identify and discuss three different ‘ideal types’ of theologies prevalent in my religious tradition of Islam today through the lens of this triad of knowledge-good deeds- spirituality. Of course, there is a rich history of ideas pertaining to this problematic in Islamic history, especially in relation to the definition of faith/belief (Iman). The views on this problematic can be conceived as a kind of a continuum. One side there were advocates who insisted that good deeds (including the normatively prescribed rituals) were an essential prerequisites of Iman with the implication that the failure to perform them was tantamount to apostasy- a crime many considered to be punishable by death. On the other hand there were those who subscribed to the view that a tacit or a verbal expression of proclaiming the faith was considered sufficient to be part of the faith community. My intention here is not to revisit these but to describe, in broad contours, some of the contemporary theologies among Muslims and some of their implications in relation to issues such as nature of revelation and scripture, the relationship between law and ethics and others.
One such theology I call progressive. Progressive theology gives priority to orthopraxis over orthodoxy. This means that it considers performance of good deeds more important than acquisition of knowledge leading to ‘correct ‘ faith/belief or that of engaging in ritual . For this type of theology the human and the human condition are central to it. The discussions pertaining to how to arrive at ‘correct belief’, those centring on nature of God and its relationship with the cosmos and the living creation are of secondary importance. Instead, the alleviation of extreme poverty, being on the side of the wretched, marginalised, stigmatised, and the downtrodden is not only considered the purpose and the primary function of religion it is also viewed as an essential prerequisite leading to orthodoxy. This theology, in my understanding of it, holds that humans are considered to experience the Divine most readily and immediately through their interactions with other human beings rather than by contemplating abstractly on the Divine , observing the nature or engaging in various spiritual exercises ( i.e. ritual). Furthermore, this theological orientation , in my view, by implication favours inductive over deductive reasoning/thinking because its foundation and starting point is the world of the human condition with its incredible diversity (including the religious) and complexity which makes it very difficult to think in binary terms (e.g. having salvation –not having salvation). Furthermore, this theology, by giving primacy to good deeds and to the human and by being less concerned about knowledge leading to ‘correct’ belief is also more likely to be egalitarian eschewing any form of hierarchies , most notably those based on gender , sexual orientation, race or ethnicity. In addition, it is more likely to be open to and accommodating of the idea of religious pluralism, i.e. the premise that none of the reified religious traditions made in the crucible of history (as well as those in the present and the future) are capable of objectively and fully capturing the Divine, thus none can claim monopoly over God. This, in turn, translates into the notion that, according to this progressive theology, the idea of God is not fully graspable to the human either through his intellect, mind, reason or the ‘heart’. By definition it also implies that the sacred scriptures cannot offer us humans an unequivocal, clearly accessible and once and for all valid understanding of God through the simple process of reading/interpretation. Instead, it considers the human interpreter and her subjectivities and contingencies as most significantly determinative of the process of interpretation envisaged as a never ending dynamic process that continually evolves with reason. There is, in other words, an organic and dialectical relationship between revelation and reality. Furthermore, this theology gives precedence to reason- based ethics over law. It insists that law must be in constant service of ethics and that law ought to evolve with evolving ideas about ethics as developed by humanity- and in the post-revelatory period this evolution is exclusively driven by reason/intellect. Put succinctly, this theology embraces and even thrives on pluralism, diversity and what’s fundamental to all of it, uncertainty. Based on my own observations I consider this to be a minority theological position among contemporary Muslims, especially among the clerical establishment, but, importantly, a growing one.
The second type of theology can be described as purist. According to this theology, religion is all about correct belief (i.e. knowledge) and everything else is secondary to it. The central concern for the purists is how to, or put more precisely, from whom to obtain the correct knowledge in order to arrive at correct faith/belief. The nature of legitimate knowledge and its sources is, thus, very specifically defined, delineated and guarded. What follows from this is the idea that this purist theology is fixed centrally on discourses pertaining to God’s essence and nature rather than being focused on the human condition. God is primarily to be found/discovered in the sacred and other canonical scriptures rather then it being experienced through human social intercourses or by contemplating about /on nature and the cosmos. I refer to this as a scripturalist dimension of purist theology or scripturalism. As a corollary, scripturalism is closely linked to what could be termed positivist legalistic theology which views law as not only more superior to ethics but the very embodiment of it. Furthermore, ethics and reason are considered as not subject to evolution and to possess potential for positive change and growth (i.e. progress). The law, according to this view, does not have a scripturally independent objective, underpinning or rationale. This theology favours, as such, deductive over inductive thinking/reasoning. In its epistemology and methods it resembles natural sciences and eschews uncertainty. Purist theology also favours decontextualized thought and defines good deeds rather statically and literally-independent of their underlying moral trajectories. Furthermore, the ‘rights’ of God are defined often as independent of at times in opposition to and always given precedence over to that of the’ rights’ of humans. The purists’ legalistic theology combined with scripturalism and strong opposition to the possibility of progress defined above also facilitates hierarchical structures, especially those based on religious creed or gender. As a result purist theology shuns religious pluralism, endorses various forms of gender inegaliterianism favouring the prevalent social and cultural customs and conditions of the time of the religious traditions formation and makes forceful theologically exclusivist claims. The scripturalist and decontextualized dimension of purists’ theology also significantly contributes to its strong hermeneutical inclination for narrowing down of legitimate or ‘authentic interpretation’s of the sacred and canonical texts. This theology, in various hues and degrees, in my view has considerable presence among contemporary Muslims.
The last ideal type discussed here is what I refer to as spiritual -ritualistic theology. Here self -introspection and deep meditative-like contemplation takes central stage in contrast to the social human condition (progressive) or that of the scriptures (purists). This contemplative quality takes often form in the engagement in elaborate rituals and recitation of sacred mantras/formulae either in isolation or in a communal setting. This sort of theology often employs the symbolism of the ‘heart’ as the locus of ‘true’ source of knowledge about God in contrast to that of the ‘intellect’ or ‘the sacred text’. As history testifies what is interesting about this type of theology is that it can lead or be accommodative of both progressive-like and purist-like theologies. It can function within the confines of ‘the law’ in form of positivist legal theology mentioned above –therefore be purist –like- or transcend it entirely by adopting an ethically underpinned theology of the progressives.
What does the future hold for these three ideal types of theologies? Are certain types going to be more likely to capture the minds and the hearts of the people? This question, of course, remains open. However with the rise of the moral consciousness, the noosphere, with its simultaneous strong focus on the human condition, deep sharing of emotion, and the embrace of diversity it seems that the progressive theology is best equipped for meeting the ‘religious-spiritual’ needs of those humans who identify themselves to be ‘people of faith’.
Dr. Adis Duderija is a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies. He recently published a book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims' Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History.