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Islamic Society ( 13 Apr 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Dialogue between Ulema and Modern Scholars


By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

08 Apr 2017

Reading Jamal Khawja on Islam in the Liberal World

Long back, Ulema in India including Kashmir had been approached to articulate and defend their understanding of Islam in philosophical idiom in order to facilitate dialogue between religions and with academicians. The questions asked included: what constituted reality  for them and how one knows it. It is another matter that the tersely formulated questionnaire was greeted with silence in Kashmir.  The idea was spearheaded, among others, by Prof. Jamal Khawja as Director of a project Philosophical Dialogue between Ulema and Modern Scholars sponsored  by Indian Council for Philosophical Research, New Delhi. Khwaja is one of the very few significant living Muslim philosophers India has produced. His Quest for Islam, Authenticity and Islamic Liberalism, Islam and Modernity and Living the Quran in Our Times constitute sustained meditations on the hard problem of being an authentic human being and authentic Muslim in the modern world. His  lucid, forceful, incisive, no non-sense prose, informed by his training in analytical philosophy, is an important addition to the world of Muslim thought in general and Muslim philosophy in particular.

      Although three decades have passed but there is no real progress on the issue of dialogue between Ulema and modern scholars. Ulema and modern scholars are hardly on talking terms. And gradual loss of Ulema’s grip over community and the new generation’s indifference to religion or drift towards atheism and fundamentalism are the consequences. Today we turn to a few of Khawja’s 18 theses that he has formulated for the consideration of educated Muslims and Ulema.  His basic addressees are “educated Muslims who value the essentials of the great Islamic heritage, but feel emotionally and intellectually ‘uneasy’ that many unjustifiable beliefs, attitudes and customs have become a part of the tradition, and that Muslims generally resist the idea of reform and growth in the Islamic value system.” He notes that Muslims “tend either to suppress their doubts or perplexities or explain them away by giving rather dubious reasons in defense of the traditional position.”

      Khawja’s 12th thesis states: “All religions stand for cultivating the attitude of wonder at the contemplation of the universe and of surrender to a mysterious Power, felt as sacred or holy, even though religions may differ in their respective theologies, symbols and rituals. This plurality does not negate the basic oneness of man’s religious consciousness: his basic state of mind and of feeling, termed ‘piety’ or ‘religious devotion’. Genuine spiritual sensitivity to the sense of ‘the Holy Mystery’, immanent in and transcending the world of matter, does not stand in the way of imaginatively enjoying diverse symbols and rites of other traditions, even as one appreciates works of art in different styles or in different media, while keeping one’s own special style or medium of aesthetic expression. Even the denial of a personal God does not necessarily amount to the denial of religious experience (conceptualized in a non-theistic frame of reference) or the denial of moral and spiritual values in their broad non-sectarian sense.”

      Now consider what this thesis implies. It implies that theological dogmas are not the primary thing we should worry about. Religion is more akin to philosophy and poetry in its insistence to cultivate wonder or radical innocence/submission before the unveilings of the Reality/Truth. Religion is not belief but faith and faith is not acceding to a propositional statement but certain attitude or direction of heart and mind. It is being open to Truth and the Truth escapes all pigeon holing attempts by fundamentalists and totalitarian ideologues. Religion is not an ideology. It is not to be reduced to theism or any one formulation. One could stick to one’s religion and should avoid both mixing of diverse religions and calling names to other religions. One doesn’t boost of one’s art style/language or claim a copyright to it.

      Khawja’s 13th thesis states: “Religious plurality does not produce any conflict, individual or social, so long as religion is treated as a means of spiritual growth rather than of political or economic power. Separating religion from politics, however does not amount to permitting the separation of morality from politics. In other words, the concept of secular politics does not logically imply amoral politics.” This implies that political Islam has an insight and a blindness and the mixed results are for all of us to see. Syed Moududi and Syed Qutb could be read as articulating this insight of inseparability of morality and politics and Abdal Razziq, Fazlur Rahman, Wahidudin Khan, Javed Ghamidi, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im providing the needed corrective for the blindness/danger that lurks in politicization of morality/religion. Religion should inform politics  as it does in philosophers from Plato to Al-Farabi to Voegelin but it isn’t reducible to a power structure. God has no political party.

      The thesis further states that “The religious attitude, by itself is not a panacea for human ills, or atheism the root cause of the strife and violence ever present in man’s history…. The solution to the human predicament lies, not in moralizing or spirituality alone, but in our giving effective help towards the establishment of social justice in the human family as a whole.” One recalls Hazrat Ali’s statement that a society based on kufur can survive but but a society based on injustice can’t.

      Khawja’s 14th thesis states: “Value oriented action or ethical conduct does not logically presuppose any particular theology or ontology over and above the true commitment to spiritual and moral values. A self-directing and mature person can habitually act ethically and responsibly, without fear of punishment or hope of reward. Nevertheless, most men, at some time or the other, do stand in need of faith in God or some metaphysical reality, as the invincible support and unfailing guarantor of the ultimate triumph of truth and justice in order to retain their moral courage and integrity of being in the face of the trials, temptations and tragedies of life.”

      One might remark that faith is “true commitment to spiritual and moral values” and the point that one upholds certain brand of theism or trans-theism is of little consequence. Faith is an existential issue and even if one isn’t religious in the usual sense, one can’t escape the prerogative to be ultimately concerned which is faith in God. God/Absolute is inescapable, irresistible as Love, Joy, Beauty immanent in life are sought by everyone.

      Khawja’s 15th thesis is: “The simple goodness of heart, spontaneous respect, kindliness and solicitude for all living creatures, as members of a large cosmic family, the habitual will to do the right and the just, for their own sake, the active aspiration to give one’s best to society, at large, seeking fulfillment through personal love and loyalty, and the struggle for social justice, the ceaseless search for truth and beauty, and finally, the joyful acceptance of suffering, decay and death, as the other side of life itself. These are the basic values that ought to be deemed the indispensable categorical imperatives for contemporary man. How or through what means; religious/theological, or extra-religious, extra theological; the individual comes to internalize and to live out the above values should be optional for each individual. Others, be they themselves religious or non-religious, need not worry about the route each individual takes to do so.”

      Thesis 16: Although modern science has discredited certain crude formulations of religious thesis, “A mature authentic faith, rooted in man’s response to the mystery of the universe, a faith purified from the crude mix of magic, myth and unexamined assumptions, a faith fully aware of the complexities of the human situation, a faith not, in the least, afraid aid of ceaseless enquiry and creativity of values – such a faith is still an open possibility.”

      Thesis 17: “The conflict, if any, between human reasoning and Divine revelation disappears when we review them as processes in history. The conflict between Humanism and Theism, or between man-centered religions and God-centered religions dissolves when we view God and man, not as totally alien to each other, but in an inscrutable relationship of the whole and the part, adumbrated in, but never captured, in the various analogies of the ocean and the drop, the sun and its rays, the sap and the plant, the self and the stream of consciousness, or in the distinction, if any, between Brahman and Atman.”

      Thesis 18: “The cardinal value for contemporary man is the quest for authentic being. Any religion or philosophy that denies or obstructs, directly or indirectly, man’s extremely slow and tortuous progress towards this ideal is misleading and false.”

      All these theses sum up a huge corpus of scholarship on philosophy of religion. One is invited to take them or leave them but can’t ignore them. One might formulate certain points in a better way, however.

Terms like myth, value, morality, religion, faith, atheism etc. suffer from certain imprecision in modern treatment. One might read Glossary of Terms used by Frithjof Schuon for more precise and traditionally grounded treatment. However, Khawja is more lucid for most of modern educated people. One can only thank him for formulating these theses. He is bound to receive more attention if Muslims are to more creatively engage with modernity. Muslim world can’t bypass new developments in philosophy and such thinkers as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault if it is to come of age. Khawja presents one way of engaging with these developments.