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The Mechanism of Religious Reform


By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam

11 Jan 2012

Horrified at a range of obnoxious beliefs and practices considered by their co-religionists as mandated by their religion, down the ages scores of women and men have sought to combat such horrors, arguing that their religion, if ‘properly’ understood, has no room for them at all. These beliefs and practices shock and shake their conscience, and they refuse to accept that their religion can bless them. They insist that these are ‘unwanted deviations’, ‘later accretions’ and the result of ‘erroneous interpretation’. Asserting the claim of possessing ‘the right’ interpretation or ‘the real’ understanding of their faith—in other words, of knowing the will of God or the founder of their religion or the ‘true’ meaning of their scriptures—they announce that these beliefs and practices have no sanction in their religion if it is ‘properly understood’.

This, in brief, is what religious reform, at least as I see it, is all about.

From this simple definition several things follow.

Firstly, that every religion is interpreted diversely by people who claim to follow it. Thus, while there are some who believe it blesses a particular obnoxious practice (which, therefore, they regard as good, rather than as evil), there are others who see it as condemning precisely the same practice (which, therefore, they see as evil, rather than as good). No religion is free from multiple and conflicting interpretations. In fact, if you examine it closely, you will discover that there are as many diverse interpretations of a particular religion as there are people who claim to follow it. This is because no single person’s interpretation of her or his religion is exactly the same as that of any of his or her co-religionists. In some way or the other, and no matter how minor, every believer’s interpretation inflected by her or his own subjectivity, which is unique to each individual.

Secondly, that religion doesn’t exist apart from the multiple interpretations of it. Simply put, a particular religion is what its many adherents claim it is and make it out to be, with each offering his or her own interpretation of it. In other words, our commonsensical notion of religion being beyond and above our limited, humanly-constructed understandings of it needs to be revised. So, too, the belief that we can somehow access and possess an understanding of our religion that is beyond the polluting touch of human interpretation.

Thirdly, that adherents of a particular religion are, generally speaking, firmly convinced that their particular interpretation or understanding of their religion is ‘true’—by which they mean that it corresponds to, and embodies, the will of God and/or that of the founder of the religion and/or the intention of the religion’s scriptures. They may not overtly assert it or even be conscious of it themselves, but they operate with the conviction that their interpretation, which is one among many, is ‘the true one’.

Fourthly, that extraneous factors—particularly our likes and dislikes or moral preferences and quirks—often play a key role in shaping and guiding our interpretations of our religions and in motivating us to choose the interpretations we like and lend our support to. Our interpretations of our religions thus don’t emerge simply from an ‘objective’ reading of our religious texts and traditions. In fact, there is no understanding of a text or tradition that can be purged of, or remain uninfluenced by, extraneous factors, in particular by our unique subjectivities.

Now, what all these four points, taken together, clearly indicate is that the reformer is no different at all from his co-religionists whom he critiques in claiming that his particular interpretation of their religion is ‘the right one’. While he readily accuses them of according their own, humanly-constructed interpretations of their religion a divine status and of seeking to wrongly pass them off as reflecting the will of God, they can legitimately retort that he is guilty of precisely the same offence. While he derides them for letting their prejudices and personal preferences colour their interpretations of their religion, they may easily reply that he isn’t doing anything different himself. Both parties may accuse each other of ignoring or misinterpreting key teachings of their religion, as exemplified in their scriptures and in reports of the life of the religion’s founder, in order to assert the claim that their own interpretation is ‘the authentic one’. Both parties may deride each other for (mis-)interpreting their religions in a manner geared to justify their personal prejudices and political agendas. Both may mock each other for reading into their religions the pre-determined conclusions about their religions that they want to arrive at in order to suit their own purposes and preferences. 

Let me clarify some of these points with the help of an example. Suppose a large proportion of the adherents of religion X think that suppressing women is sanctioned by their religion, and that God, the founder of this religion and this religion’s scriptures all attest to this. Most religions have historically been interpreted to lend support to misogyny in various degrees, and X could stand any one or all of these.

Z, who belongs to the community of people who follow religion X (possibly, like most of us, he’s born into the religion, and he may not have chosen it himself if he had the choice), simply cannot agree with his co-religionists’ fiercely anti-women attitudes. He is shocked at the horrific treatment of women in his community and knows that the misogyny blessed in the name of his religion makes his people (including himself) a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world. Given that his people are too wedded to their religion to abandon it, he thinks that the best way for them to stop oppressing women is to convince them that their religion, if ‘properly understood’, does not legitimize the subordination of women at all. God’s will, as embodied in their religion, he tells his people, is not that women should be subjugated, but, rather, that they should be treated as the equals of men.

Driven by his disgust with the shabby treatment of women in his community, which is blessed in the name of his religion, this reformer of ours sets about trying to ‘prove’ that his religion actually stands for gender equality, not misogyny. Even before he has carefully studied his religion, he has already come to a conclusion about what his religion ‘actually’ stands for—or, rather, what he wants it to stand for or even what he wants himself and others, especially his co-religionists, to believe that it stands for. His visceral hatred for misogyny has already driven him to a conclusion, even before he has set out to understand his religion in a reasonably dispassionate way: that his religion can in no way sanction, or be seen as sanctioning, misogyny. He has already decided that he has to ‘prove’, by hook or by crook as it were and by any and every means possible, that his religion doesn’t and cannot sanction misogyny. He simply doesn’t want to understand his religion on its own terms. Rather, he insists that his religion must mean what he wants it to, that it must conform to his norms, his values, his prejudices, his conception of gender relations. If many of his co-religionists insist that their religion blesses women’s subordination, he simply cannot accept it because it doesn’t accord with what he wants his religion to appear to stand for, irrespective of what the truth might otherwise be.

Opposing the widespread misogyny in the name of his religion is this reformists’ preconceived agenda, and so it indelibly heavily colours his entire reading of his religion. In fact, this reading is wholly determined by this purpose. In order to arrive at the conclusion that he has already decided on, Z makes every effort to read gender justice into his religion, sometimes even twisting words and passages completely beyond recognition. He highlights passages of scripture or bits of history of his community that reflect harmonious relations between the genders to make the point that his religion calls for women to be treated well. He highlights a few available instances of powerful women in his community (who may have been exceptions that only prove the rule) to argue against his co-religionists who insist that their religion demands that women be kept under the rule of men at all times and throughout their lives. When he comes to scriptural passages or reports of the life of key figures in his tradition that clearly militate against gender justice, he may completely ignore them, or else, if this is not possible, he may try to interpret them away, suggesting that they may mean something completely different from what they are commonly thought to or even that they maybe ‘later concoctions’. In this way, Z struggles to convince his co-religionists and others that his religion does not, contrary to what they believe, sanction the oppression of women.

But Z doesn’t stop at just that. Like his critics, he goes on to insist that his gender-just understanding of his religion is ‘true’ and ‘authentic’—in that it reflects the will of God or the founder of the religion, in contrast to the other, misogynist interpretations of the same religion. But of course there is no way that the his claim and those of his critics, of representing the divine will or the mind of the religion’s founder, can be proved or disproved, for God is not expected to publicly pronounce on the matter, and nor is the founder of the religion, presumably long since deceased, going to appear to declare which one among the rival parties of interpreters of his religion and scripture actually embodies his will and intention. 

And so, reformists as well as their critics can go on and on, pretty much endlessly, making their claims and counter-claims, each purporting to know the ‘true’ meaning of their religion even as they continue, perhaps even unconsciously, reading their own pre-determined meanings into their religious traditions and texts to come up with conclusions that support their respective positions and agendas.

This, in brief, is the mechanism of religious reform that has typically been pursued by individuals, irrespective of religion, pained at the vast range of horrors that their religions have been thought, rightly or wrongly, by many of their adherents to bless. It isn’t that such reform is entirely useless. In fact, it may often be the only way to convince people to give up horrific practices and beliefs. But the fact remains that reformists, like their critics, are almost always guilty of the same terrible error: of claiming to know what really can’t ever be known—the unfathomable mind of an invisible God. That bombastic claim to cognitive supremacism is simply too much for me to accept. How much more honest, and effective, too, it would be, or so I think, if we challenged distasteful beliefs and practices commonly seen as blessed by religion simply because they are indeed distasteful, without our needing a religious justification to do so—or, if no such justification existed, without our feeling compelled to invent one.