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We Can Fight Extremism with Rationality


Using Reason

By Ali H Moni

23 Jan 2015

We can fight extremism with rationality

Physician learning a complex surgical method at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad

The setting was typically Pakistani – a narrow space with tables strewn along the walls adorned with pictures of Mecca, depicting scenes from the Hajj. Aromatic wafts arose from the buffet stall and filled the tightly packed space. A din of voices made almost everything incomprehensible. Food was greasy and delicious. In Midtown Manhattan, we felt comfortably at home.

As I dug into my plate of Nihari, my friend excavated through his lamb Biryani. Our conversation veered from the latest T-20 match Pakistan had lost due to erratic shots, to European history. Afridi had, yet again, tried to launch the ball into orbit, possibly trying to strike India’s recently launched satellite to Mars. Somehow we still loved him for it.

“Why do you think Western civilizations are more advanced compared to the Muslim world?” I asked my friend, who is studying history in college, having already conceded that Western civilizations are more advanced.

“Because of the use of reason,” he explained.

Since then I have thought about what he said and have wondered what using reason means. While making everyday decisions, I’ve found myself asking if I am using reason. Through this process, I have developed better self control, as a result of which I am healthier and have more energy, leaving me more fulfilled as an individual. Is that what my friend meant— the use of reason at a personal level, making the quotidian beats of life more meaningful?

Reason could also be used to understand Islam, separating myth from reality and intent from literal interpretations.

Europeans are not the only ones to have used reason to understand the natural world and religion. Early days of Islam witnessed movements, now largely ignored in favor of Islam’s military achievements, that emphasized the use of rational thought. Most notable among such movements was the Mutazilla school of thought that advocated using reason to understand religion. The key ideas debated by the Mutazilla were predestination and free will. As opposed to traditionalists, who believed in predestination, Mutazilla held that man was responsible for his condition and that rational thought would lead to a better understanding of Quranic teachings, arguing that the Quran is best understood allegorically and not literally. They pointed out that interpreting religion in the light of reason would prevent self-serving rulers and clerics from misusing religion. Indeed, distortion of religious belief by clerics and prayer leaders is topical to Pakistan.

He smiled, lit a cigarette and said, ‘I’m a Pakistani’

Emotionalism and superstition have filled the void left by reason in Pakistan, and perhaps in much of the Muslim world. This makes religion susceptible to narrow interpretations and leaves society dangerously averse to change; it’s easier to stay within a stagnant comfort zone than taking a rational leap and questioning traditional thinking, making religious reform unlikely.

Still, numerous Pakistanis have lived exemplary lives and have had stellar careers as a result of using reason. In 1979, Dr Abdus Salam won the Nobel Prize in physics. A theoretical physicist, he contributed to the understanding of electroweak forces. It would have been apt to laud him as a national hero, but instead, beset by rigid ideas, we disowned him and banished his memory.

And before partition, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan called for a new interpretation of Islam on rational basis, maintaining that superstition and blind adherence to tradition had kept Muslims backward. Little attention is paid to this aspect of Sir Syed’s thought in Pakistan.

Our age of reason could begin in our schools— by encouraging rational thought, purging curriculum of hate teaching material, and instilling in young minds the importance of questioning received wisdom. Education reforms must become the central pillar of a policy that would eliminate religious extremism and promote the use of reason.

Back in Manhattan, we finished dining. I shook my friend’s hand and proceeded home, but then stopped, turned around and asked him: “How about what you just ate and your doctor’s advice? How does that go along with using reason?” My friend was recently told by his doctor that he was at an elevated risk of diabetes and heart disease and should adopt a healthier lifestyle.

He smiled, lit a cigarette and said, “I’m a Pakistani.”