New Age Islam
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Spiritual Meditations ( 21 Apr 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Futile Battles Over Religious 'Authenticity'

By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam

As someone who for years took an active interest in, and wrote extensively on, intra-religious polemics but has now realised the utter folly of it all, I find the ceaseless wranglings among 'believers' in each religious tradition, with each set claiming to represent the sole 'true' brand of it, to be completely futile. As far as I am concerned, such disputes are wholly insoluble and plainly pointless, and that's why I've stopped taking any interest in them at all.

Each religious tradition has been interpreted diversely by its votaries throughout history, which explains the bewildering variety of sects within each, with each claiming to represent the sole true understanding of their faith. In turn, each sect passionately denounces the rival interpretations of competing sects as 'deviant', 'false' or 'heretical' or even 'blasphemous'. In many cases, intra-sectarian rivalries have been much more fierce and bloody than inter-religious rivalries. In some religious traditions, such extreme conflict continues to rage, leading to continuing loss of life on a frightening scale. Further, enormous emotional energy and material resources of sectarian 'believers' continues to be wasted on combatting sectarian rivals and their understandings of the religion that they share in common as they continue to battle each other over who bears the mantle of being the sole true followers of their religion.

In addition to such sectarian divisions over religious authenticity, within each sect in every religious tradition, broadly defined, differences in matters of interpretation continue to abound. This makes the question of locating the sole 'true' understanding of the religion in question even more complicated--and, as far as I am concerned, a truly worthless enterprise.

Differences among votaries of a particular religion over matters of interpretation are almost inevitable once the founder of that tradition is no longer alive. As long as this person is physically available to his followers, matters in which his followers might differ among themselves, such as over the meaning of key religious texts or about beliefs, doctrines and rituals taught by the founder, are easily settled by seeking the founder's advice or obeying his commands. His word is regarded as final, and so till he is alive, conflicting interpretations of the religion he expounds do not rear their heads. But no sooner does he depart from this world than such divisions almost invariably appear. Often, though not always, they are linked to power-struggles among his followers. Each set of rivals, defined on the basis of differing understandings of the founder's words and deeds, now insists that it alone upholds and champions his religion in the right manner--in exactly the way that he conceived it. Conversely, and in order to shore up its own claim to authenticity, each such set of rivals fiercely denounces competing interpretations of the same religion as being a cruel betrayal of the words, life, mission and vision of the founder.

Since the founder is no longer around to judge between these competing interpretations of what he taught and to clearly specify which, if any, represents the truth as he would understand it, such divergent interpretations continue to mount, gradually leading to the formation of clearly-defined and mutually hostile sects. That explains how and why sectarian divisions within the so-called 'world religions', whose founders or key figures lived several hundred or even several thousands of years ago, continue to remain alive even today. For the same reason, one cannot expect these divisions to ever be truly overcome, for the founders of these religions, who alone could have been accepted by all their followers to authoritatively clarify matters in which they continue to dispute, have long since departed from the world and will (probably) never return. They are no longer physically available to judge which of the rival interpretations of their views or the texts they wrote or are believed by their followers to have received from god is really true.

When votaries of rival interpretations of a particular religious tradition claim that their particular interpretation alone is true and that the others are false or deviant, they generally also insist that their interpretation corresponds exactly to that of the founder of their religion himself and that it also represents the will or intention of God (in the case of the God-centric religions). Since, generally, the founders of these religions have long since left the world, and since the will of God can hardly be easily ascertained by common mortals, such claims cannot be proven or dis-proven logically and must be either believed in or rejected simply on grounds of faith. What such competing assertions amount to is nothing less than a claim that their votaries have access to the mind and intent of the founder of their religion, who is long since deceased, and, even more, that they, unlike their rivals, even know the will of God! As far as I am concerned, to make such a claim is to functionally substitute oneself for the founder of one's religion or even to take the place of God. And this is something so megalomaniac as well as so intellectually dishonest that I simply cannot accept it. To use a religious term that I generally avoid, it is about the most blasphemous claim that one could conceive of!

Let me clarify what I've just said with the help of some examples. Hindus continue to squabble among themselves as to whether or not 'true Hinduism' sanctifies caste and untouchability. While some Hindus insist that Hinduism permits women and Shudras to read the Vedas, others argue to the contrary. Some Hindus believe that child-marriage and animal sacrifice is permitted or even encouraged in the Hindu Dharamshastras, while others interpret the same texts to arrive at precisely the opposite conclusion. As to whether Hinduism sanctifies or denounces idol-worship or if Ram was the model god-man or a tyrant who oppressed women and the Shudras, or if Krishna's several thousand gopis were truly his girl-friends or not, Hindus show no unanimity whatsoever. Some Hindus insist that 'true Hinduism' is a monotheistic religion, while others argue that it is polytheistic, and yet others aver that it is pantheist.

What unites these diverse sets of Hindus, who interpret their religion in such contradictory ways, is their common insistence that their particular interpretation of their religion represents 'true Hinduism' and that other interpretations are not authentically Hindu.

Likewise, Muslims never cease to disagree among themselves as to precisely what 'true Islam' is. They continue to battle among themselves about such matters as whether or not 'true Islam' permits slavery and child-marriage or does or does not sanctify war against 'infidels' or if, according to their religion, only Muslims go to heaven on their deaths. Fierce intra-Muslim polemics continue to rage on whether Islam allows Muslim women to work outside their homes or shape their eyebrows or to inherit equally as males do and if the rivers of honey and doe-eyed houris inhabiting heaven, as described in the Quran, are to be taken literally or as symbolic representations. Some Muslims argue that according to 'true Islam', a Muslim man may not eat food cooked by an 'infidel' or even to befriend non-Muslims, while other Muslims vehemently disagree. Some Muslims contend that Islam accepts democracy and secularism and freedom of faith, while others argue to the contrary.

Despite all these differences as to what 'true' Islam is, these different sets of Muslims are united by their common insistence that they alone represent 'true Islam' at the same time as they insist that the interpretations of their faith offered by other Muslims are unambiguously un-Islamic.

Christians, for their part, are no less divided over what precisely 'true Christianity' stands for on a wide range of issues. They never seem to agree on some very basic issues about Jesus, for instance. Some say he was a man, others claim he was God, yet others insist he was both God and man at the same time. While some Christians insist that Jesus advocated absolute non-violence, other Christians have long invoked him to justify their wars of aggression and imperialist offensives against non-Christian peoples. Some Christians insist that, according to the 'true Christianity', non-Christians will be doomed to everlasting hell, while others hold less idiotic views of the hapless 'heathens'.

Despite the enormous differences in their understanding of their religion, these bickering Christians are united by a common insistence that they alone reflect 'true Christianity' and that those who differ from them are misguided.

Such disputes over 'true Hinduism', 'true Islam' or 'true Christianity' and so on continue to rage, centuries after their fundamental texts were written and their founders departed from the world, showing no sign of any resolution. This clearly indicates that the question of what constitutes 'true' Hinduism, Islam or Christianity and so on can never be resolved, simply because the men who could have authoritatively answered on the subject--the founders of these faiths--are no longer physically present in the world. This allows each of the mutually-opposed sets of 'believers' within each religious tradition to passionately insist that its own position on such vexed matters as outlined above, represents the truth of their faith, the actual intent of the founder of their religion, the real meaning of their scriptures and even (in the case of the God-based religions) the very will of God Himself. And since the founders of their faiths cannot be accessed now, the truth of their rival claims can never be authoritatively and finally judged.

Whether it be the 'religious bigots', who stand for the sort of religious supremacism and patriarchy that 'liberal' folks like us love to detest, or the 'religious reformists', whose more 'progressive' views we might personally feel less threatened by or are more comfortable with, both are engaged, at a very fundamental level, in making the same claim: of claiming to know the mind of the long-deceased founder of their religion and/or of God as well. In both cases, such a claim, as I indicated above, cannot be logically proved. And, as I hinted, a claim of this sort is the height of arrogance and conceit, being so intellectually dishonest that I simply cannot even be coerced into accepting it.

That, in brief, is how I've come to realise the utter futility of intra-religious polemics about religious authenticity, and why I now realise both the logical impossibility as well as the sheer audacity of claiming that one particular interpretation of a particular religious tradition truly represents the intent of its founder and/or of God. Such claims no longer interest me, as they once passionately did. I've no longer any need now to defend or oppose any such claim, having seen all such claims as reflecting the lamentably all-too human tendency to claim to speak for a person who is long deceased and no longer accessible or even for God and to know His mind (to use the language of those who believe in a personal god). This, I have to say, is simply too bombastic a claim for me to submit to. I'm quite happy not knowing and not being ever able to know what 'true' Hinduism or 'true' Islam is or what Jesus 'truly' meant by whatever is said in the Bible about him, which Christians continue to dispute about.

That said, a few words now for 'liberal' and 'progressive' religious 'reformers', who, pained at and embarrassed by the tyranny and brutality (often directed at women, people of other faiths or people of 'lower' caste/class) that their own religions are often interpreted by their less 'enlightened' co-religionists as promoting, seek to offer alternate, less harsh or more palatable understandings of the same. In doing so, they make although they may not even recognise it) the same fundamental error as the bigots whose interpretations of their common faith they seek to challenge and replace. For, like them, they, too, claim to discern and know the 'true' version of their faith--'true' Hinduism, 'true Islam', 'true Christianity' and so on--which they seek to promote in place of rival versions, which they dismiss as 'false' or 'inauthentic'. Such a claim, as I earlier mentioned, simply cannot be logically substantiated and so can be accepted or rejected only on grounds of faith. I have no doubt of the worthy intention of such religious 'reformists' in most cases (although I do know that advocating 'reformist' religious views is, for some of them, as lucrative a business as peddling religious obscurantism is for some others), but I do recognise that their insistence on claiming to possess privileged access to the mind of God and/or that of the long deceased founder of their faith is no less illogical, untenable and audacious than that of their rivals. And so, just as I cannot accept the latter, I cannot accept them, too, even if their version of their faith seems somewhat more in accordance with my own preferences and prejudices.

I find the path of many 'liberal' and 'progressive' religious 'reformists' who claim to know the 'true' will of God or the 'true' intent of their religion (as against their opponents, whom they quickly dismiss as heretics, and so behaving in quite the same way with the latter as the latter do with them) to be both intellectually and morally suspect. Theirs is a path I would personally desist from. For me its enough to follow my own conscience, to listen to my heart to discern what is right or wrong for me, rather than having to justify my every thought and action with recourse to a religious text or tradition or to one of the many rival interpretations thereof that accords with my sensibilities--which is precisely what many reformers, just like the 'bigots' they rail against, do.