By Maryam Sakeenah
Muslim jurists were remarkably tolerant of Ikhtilaf (difference of opinion), were adept at the Adaab (etiquette) of Ikhtilaf, discouraged blind following (Taqleed) of their opinions
“Lost in the loneliness, we turn inwards — with a knife in our hands and a lump in our throats,” writes Muhammad Fadel describing the deep crisis in contemporary Muslim consciousness. The rising popularity of Salafism is a reactionary response over what is seen as the encroachment upon Muslim identity and culture by an ascendant west. The call for a puritanical ‘return to the sources’ down to the letter shunning the accretions of theology and jurisprudence over centuries is distressingly ahistorical and mimetic. It refuses to recognise the need to creatively and rationally respond to the exigencies of the times. Islamic jurisprudence traditionally accorded space to diversity. Muslim jurists were remarkably tolerant of Ikhtilaf (difference of opinion), were adept at the Adaab (etiquette) of Ikhtilaf, discouraged blind following (Taqleed) of their opinions and encouraged critical thinking and research.
By refusing to defer to historical understandings of Islam in theology and law, these Muslim groups place themselves at the fringe of the Islamic tradition they claim to be the guardians of. In refusing to subject their opinions to rational inquiry, they reject the status of individuals as rational subjects imbued with the divinely bestowed gift of intellect and free will. “Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you” (5:48).
At a subconscious level, the deep realisation of the un tenability of opinions that refuse to defer to critical examination has resulted in an inward-looking stasis characterised by an uncompromising exclusivism and exceptionalism. Muslim exceptionalism betrays the Quran’s consistent appeal to mankind as the creation of God: a single family. Muslim exclusivism refuses to recognise the fact that our wellbeing as a species on a finite planet is tied to the wellbeing of all others we share it with.
Exclusivism creates the tendency to view ideas as mutually exclusive. The middle ground is lost sight of. Hence the world appears like an arena for a clash of ideas. The ‘Us versus Them’ psyche translates into ‘Islam versus the West.’ This is dangerous as it understands both Islam and the west as monoliths and glosses over the many instances both historical and contemporary, of coexistence, intercultural exchange and shared values. It denies the universality of commonly held values. The actual confrontation as recognised by Islam, is between Haq and Baatil (Truth versus Falsehood), and before deciding if anything that passes for Islam is the whole truth, we need to ask ‘whose Islam?’ given the fact that the Quran and Sunnah are open to diverse readings and interpretations and the self-appointed spokespeople of Islam are as many as the possible interpretations. Nor is falsehood equivalent to all that the west is about, given the fact that the military-industrial complex and the clique of influential policy-making elites are responsible for the highhandedness of foreign policy decisions and the injustices that have wreaked havoc and provoked a backlash among Muslim populations.
The myth of ‘Islam versus the West’ also denies the collective heritage of Islamic and European civilisations. Attempts to claim a monopoly over the achievements of human civilisation are a form of intellectual dishonesty, whether done by scholars in the west or the Muslim world. “But the work of man is only just beginning, and it remains to conquer all the violence entrenched in the recesses of our passion, for no race possesses the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force. And there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory” — Aimé Césaire.
The growing distance between Deen (religion) and Duniya (the world) in Muslim consciousness has made Muslims unconcerned about aspects that belong to the secular domain as profane and unworthy. Talking of issues that resonate with the masses like poverty or the energy crisis is considered redundant given the ‘Islamic’ credentials of religious political groups; hence the growing unpopularity of these groups. Religious discourse that fails to take account of the modern mind and appeal to the youth with their voracity for rational argument cannot be shoved down people’s throats.
Still more lamentable is the fact that Muslims are failing to realise the need to introspect. Any manifestation of the deep crisis in Muslim consciousness is dismissed as ‘unrepresentative of Islam’ at best, and ‘propaganda against Islam’ at worst. Any voice helping us to examine ourselves critically or calling for reform is disdainfully rejected with suspicion and sneering self-righteousness. The belief that terrorists or criminals or misogynists ‘use’ the name of Islam to justify their deeds is comforting but unhelpful because it does not recognise the fact that many interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah actually give some grounds to sanction such acts and that, therefore, there is great responsibility on Muslim thinkers to expose such arguments.
So much of Muslim scholarship is incognizant of the psychology of modernity. The need today is for Muslim scholars to negotiate between entrenched extreme positions, address issues of the here and now in a language that appeals to the common man, and to appeal to modern sensibility in a manner that is faithful to the ethos of the Islamic tradition. Such voices need to collate, organise and rise to a crescendo that can drown out the clamour of extremisms.
Maryam Sakeenah is a social worker, teacher and columnist