By Douglas Todd
August 25, 2017
A fellow with a slogan on his T-shirt got his 15 minutes of fame during last weekend’s Vancouver rally against opponents of mass immigration and Islamic practices.
“Meet a Muslim & ask about Islam,” said the T-shirt of the smiling unidentified young man, who sported a black beard, sunglasses and blue baseball cap.
Photos of the T-shirt attracted a torrent of “likes” on social media. Enthusiastic commenters praised the “meet-a-Muslim” message as what is needed in this era of Canadian hyper-diversity in ethnicity and religion.
Alas, most people don’t get the chance for anything more than a superficial exchange with a Canadian Muslim, of which there are more than one million (70,000 in Metro Vancouver). And in this secularized era, most certainly don’t get into a discussion about orthodox Islamic beliefs.
The lack of connection may be why many non-Muslims remain polarized. One camp point mainly to the horrors of Islamic extremism in Barcelona, London, Nice and even parts of Canada, while the other holds demonstrations against what it maintains is irrational “Islamophobia.”
The way out of ignorance lies in the middle, in a synthesis of these poles. Is it possible Islam, the religion of 1.3 billion people, does contain its share of ultra-conservatives and militants? But could it also be many Muslims seek progressive, moderate leadership?
I’ve had the privilege to know Muslims in Canada and around the world. In my personal life, and in work with the International Association of Religion Journalists, I’ve become colleagues and friends with Muslims in North America, Europe, Malaysia, Lebanon, South Africa, Algeria, Pakistan and elsewhere.
International networks have also led me to Farhan Shah, who was born in Pakistan, collaborates closely with North American philosophers and theologians and is now at the University of Oslo.
Shah’s hope for the future of his Muslim brothers and sisters lies largely in the life and teaching of a great Pakistani poet, philosopher, lawyer and statesman.
If North Americans think the time is right to “meet a Muslim,” they would do well to follow Shah’s lead and get to know Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938).
Iqbal was a devout Sunni Muslim and mystic who studied in England and Germany, but campaigned early for Pakistan’s independence 70 years ago this month from India. Iqbal blended Islamic theology and Western philosophy to arrive at a dynamic form of Islam. As a critic of stultified forms of Islam, Iqbal has inspired Muslims from India to Sri Lanka, Pakistan to Iran. He was a democracy advocate who campaigned for human rights.
Shah is convinced Iqbal is the kind of visionary thinker needed to combat the hardening of Muslim practice and theology in many corners of the world.
Like Iqbal, Shah believes the Qur’an is an essentially freedom-oriented holy book, which sees positive change as the greatest signs of God.
Like Iqbal, Shah also says Muslims need to adjust their image of Allah.
“My prime concern is related to the spreading of an Islamic theology of fear and fatalism based on an archaic, capricious and dictatorial conception of God,” Shah said in an email.
“(Many Muslim) dogmas generate servile adherence to ‘holy men’ (mullahs) without utilizing the power of reflection. By shutting down our faculties of critical reason, we tend to bolster patriarchal, anti-humanistic and repressive ideas.”
Shah, who is in the theology department at the University of Oslo, says it’s essential to re-construct Muslim world views based on what Iqbal was convinced are “the key values of the Qur’an — that is, the inalienability of human dignity, justice and freedom.”
Why exactly has Shah become one of the foremost champions of Iqbal, who is often known as the “Poet of the East?”
Why highlight the man whose name proudly appears on hospitals, sports stadiums and universities throughout Pakistan (the source country for almost 200,000 immigrants to Canada)?
Shah learned from his parents at a young age to value Iqbal for his open-mindedness, religious self-criticism (known as “Ijtihad” in Arabic) and eagerness to usher Muslims into the 20th century.
Iqbal taught that all humans have dignity and all things are interconnected. Influenced by Western philosophers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, Iqbal taught life is a dialectic and that everything is in a process of becoming.
Humans are co-creators with God, or, as Iqbal put it, “vice-regents of the divine.”
The ultimate aim of Islam, the Pakistani thinker said, is “to disenthrall man from fear, and thus to give him a sense of his personality, to make him conscious of himself as a source of power.”
Though Iqbal was influenced by the famous Persian poet, Rumi, he opposed the Sufi Muslim idea that humans are mere drops of water merging passively into a divine ocean. Iqbal emphasized self-realization, human agency and respect for all human beings, whom he considered equals in a kind of spiritual democracy.
Iqbal also rejected the fatalistic belief among Muslims and others that God is in total control, like a dictator. Shah writes passionately about the kind of reforms Iqbal’s theology could animate across a troubled Islam.
“There can be no revitalization and reform within Muslim communities that are riddled with endless cycles of sectarian clashes, blind imitation, intellectual stasis, patriarchal structures, human right abuses and ideological quagmires,” Shah says.
These might be heady ideas for many Canadian Muslims and non-Muslims, who on a weekly basis have to deal with the more thorny challenge of finding perspective on negative news stories about Muslims.
They include recent articles about the expansion of female genital mutilation into Canada, the conviction of a Port Coquitlam imam for sexual assault and polls showing Canadian Muslims, like evangelicals, are less tolerant than others of homosexuality.
In the face of similar setbacks in his era, however, Iqbal taught that humans must be ready to move beyond old habits and reform. The Pakistani poet believed Allah helps humans do that, by being a non-coercive lure towards creative transformation.
For North Americans who wish to move beyond polarized views of Islam, they could do a lot worse than learning about the courageous life and wise world view of Mohammed Iqbal.