Thursday, September 17, 2015

From ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise. Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim’ by Ziauddin Sardar

The thirst to know, the imperative to think and reflect was the most resonant chord, the insistent theme I found running throughout the Qur’an.

Throughout this conversation my father remained silent. His speciality was sitting quietly and fuming…. His seismic cycle was linked in comfortable, connubial fashion to the pattern of my mother’s discourse. He would sit there, an Etna occasionally sending out smoke signals but otherwise just forming the scenic backdrop, until my mother had finished. At which point his tectonic plates would realign, causing a perturbation in his magma chamber that would generate a potent lava flow. His eruptions were made only to contradict – and every now and then to disparage – what she had said. Like an assured volcanologist, I sat quietly waiting for his intervention.

………..the great collections of Hadith compiled by Imam al-Bukhari, who died in 869 and Imam Muslim, who died in 875…The authentic voices that became traditional authority were more critical and less certain of their opinions. They thought and wrote as men of their own changing times, not as monuments of imperishable stone.
I was deeply impressed by how gentle and moderate the classical scholars really were. Take Bukhari, the compiler of one of the major collections of authentic Hadith. An exceptionally polite and mild mannered person, Bukhari in fact pioneered the science of Hadith criticism, a vast field of research combining ethics, morality, sociology, law, politics, economics and logic into a unique discipline of intellectual inquiry. At the heart of Hadith criticism is the notion of isnad, or attestation. It concerns tracing each link in the chain of narrators, those who reported a saying or action of the Prophet. Nothing was taken for granted, critical inquiry required investigating the qualities of each link in the chain as regards memory, accuracy, truthfulness, examining their competence as reliable witnesses whose testimony would be accepted in the court of civil law and tracing the chain back to Prophet Mohammad himself. But even that was not good enough. Time and geographical circumstances had to be investigated to establish that it was physically possible for individuals in the chain of narrators to have met. Moreover, further investigations were needed to ensure that the Hadith was not against reason or established historical fact; or against the teachings of the Qur’an; or that it did not express a partisan view, or that it did not contain warning of heavy punishment for ordinary lapses of conduct or mighty rewards for ordinary acts of piety.

Bukhari ….would take a bath and pray every time he examined a particular Hadith – given that he had collected around 600,000, it is not surprising it took him sixteen years to compile his collection of authentic Hadith: the Sahih. ….Of all the Hadith he examined, he included about 7,000 in his book and labelled only 2,602 as authentic. Having compiled the Sahih he was still not satisfied, he revised the text three times. When it was finally published, Bukhari’s reputation spread far and wide.

Consider Imran Malik. The School of Islamic Law this Medinan scholar inspired is said to be the most rigid, extreme and uncompromising. Yet Malik himself was anything but rigid and free from doubt. He was asked by the Caliph to write a book that would be distributed throughout the Muslim world as a guide to Islamic law. Anyone differing from this book could then be prosecuted. Malik rejected the idea outright, declaring his opinions were not certain. Anyway, he said, the Companions of the Prophet were to be found all over the Muslim world, and people could learn from these individuals, rather than from a single book. Imam Malik insisted there was more than one way to practice Islam; and that people should be free to go to any fountain of knowledge they deemed fit. Much the same can be said of Imam Shafi’i, a disciple of Imran Malik. Shafi’i ……after visiting Iraq, where the jurists followed the School established by Imam Hanafi, another mild-mannered individual who favoured personal reasoning than total reliance on Hadith and analogy. Shafi’i concluded that Maliki theories had many weaknesses. But after debating with Hanafi scholars, he concluded that the Hanafi School too was flawed. He devoted the last years of his life to producing a synthesis of the two Schools of Thought which appeared as Al-Shafi’i Risala. …..The legal opinions of these scholars, the substance that forms the body of Islamic Law, was never meant to be absolute, comprehensive or eternal, let alone the ultimate understanding of what constitutes the Law in Islam. They themselves saw, and emphasized, that their personal opinions were just opinions, which they changed frequently, and never intended to be Eternal Law. To claim, as for example Hassan al-Banna did, that the Imams had solved all problems for all time, amounts to attributing divine authority to gentle, unassuming, unsure men, Who can say that Islamic Law, as it exists, is the final word on everything?

….it became increasingly apparent that collectively, my group of Islamist friends were short on two things: self-doubt and forgiveness. The first led many to see the world in black and white. The second sowed the seeds of discord amongst us.

…..Rosser-Owen quoted a verse by an Arabic poet: ‘So long as belief and unbelief are not perfectly equal, no man can be a true Muslim.’

‘What is Sufism?’…..the tenth-century mystic Abul Hasayn an-Nuri….replied: ‘Sufism is neither external [experience] nor knowledge, it is all virtue.’ Al-Junayd, who is credited with formulating the Sufi path, answered: ‘Sufism is that you should be with God without any attachment.’ …….Samnun…end of the ninth century…..said: ‘Sufism is that you should not possess anything nor should anything possess you.’ An alternative approach to pinning down Sufism is to define it in terms of its central experience – fana. Fana literally means to be dissolved, to be annihilated. Junayd…… when ‘you die to yourself and live by Him’. Essentially, it is the negation of the Self: negation of will, existence, self-consciousness and being; forsaken for union with God, assimilation into His will….. The discipline that leads Sufis to fana is zikr: the act of remembering Allah. Zikr can consist of elaborate procedures but usually involves saying ‘Allah’ loudly, stretching the word as it is pronounced, and saying it with all the force of heart and throat.

Sheikh Nazim Adil Haqqani, a Cypriot Sufi…… ‘There are three big snakes that harm human beings,’ he said. ‘Beware of them: to be intolerant and impatient with the people around you; to be dependent on something you cannot leave; and to be controlled by your ego.’…..the Sheikh said ….. ‘I am the collector of souls. I polish souls till the ego has evaporated…… There is too much information in the head of young seekers. You must empty your mind of all that you know. Only then can you begin the journey towards tasawwuf.

Hypocrisy, fanaticism and self-righteousness were dismissed by [Nasruddin] Hodja with equal candour…….. In a famous story, Hodja suggests that every argument has more than one side: two men involved in a quarrel ask Hodja to settle their dispute. When the first man tells his version, Hodja says: ‘You are right.’ The second protests, demanding to tell his version, after which Hodja remarks: ‘You’re right.’ His wife, who has been listening, intervenes: ‘But they cant both be right.’ Hodja promptly replies: ‘Woman, you’re right, too’ Muslims everywhere need a character like him to lean against……

In classical Islam the quest for knowledge had always been intimately linked with extensive travel; a fact endorsed by none other than Al-Ghazali. The eleventh-century philosopher and theologian is a towering figure in Islamic history … the classical author most Muslims turn to in despair.  …..while writing about certainty, he was perpetually on the edge of doubt, always searching for truth, moving from one fit of skepticism to another. ‘No one believes,’ he said, ‘until he has doubted.’….. For al-Ghazali travel is an essential component of belief……Both worldly knowledge and inner knowledge of one’s Self and one’s position in the cosmos are acquired through travel ……

Al-Ghazali distinguishes two general categories of travel: rihla and safar. …….Rihla is outward, physical travel, professionally undertaken…… Safar involved physical exertion as well as inner transformation, liberation and attainment ……The journey must transport the individual towards new experiences and encounters and force him to perceive the interconnectedness of all things around him ……The traveler learns from mixing with ordinary people who force him to constantly re-examine his own assumptions, his accustomed routine of activity and thought, thus transforming him from the inside and producing a new synthesis.

The Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, resting place of the Beloved Prophet Muhammed…..Medina, the ancient city of Yathrib, is the second holiest city of Islam ……the social and commercial life of the city focused around the Prophet’s Mosque. The original mosque was built of sun-dried brick, the floor was of earth and the ceiling constructed of palm fronds covered with mud and supported by pillars of palm wood. This mosque has been rebuilt a number of times over the centuries, added to and made splendid by caliphs and kings. The Ottomans in particular paid a great deal of attention both to the Prophet’s mosque and to the City  ……..In the time of King Abdul Aziz, it still retained its Ottoman flavor ….At the entrance to the city, a splendid inner castle stood as a reminder of the medieval wall which once defended it. Streets were lined with stucco houses, ornamented with intricately worked wooden lattices. The Prophet’s mosque was rose red with Ottoman minarets and magnificent gates surmounted with gold inscriptions set there by Turkish calligraphers. …..between 1948 and 1955, during the reigns of two successive Saudi Kings, the mosque was extended by one-third and entirely rebuilt in grey stone…….most of the old city was left untouched. Only a few large modern hotels overshadowed the old houses, and here and there occasional car parks appeared as eyesores. ……. ‘In June 1973,’ Angawi’s voice was clipped with emotion, ‘there came a second transformation. In a matter of days ……the whole city was razed to the ground.’ No one complained. Indeed, not many knew what had happened. ‘Fourteen hundred years of history and tradition disappeared in a dust cloud, gone’

Like most Saudis, Al-Turki was more polite than frank

Throughout their history, it is said, the Bedouins had nothing and owned nothing; but they had plenty of time. They enjoyed hanging around, waiting, not rushing to do anything in particular. So, waiting has become an essential ingredient of Saudi life.

……the thirteenth-century Muslim political scientist Ibn Taymiyya……was concerned, almost exclusively, with the strength and survival of the Muslim community at a time when Islam, recovering from the onslaught of the Crusades, was under siege from the Mongols. He saw dissension amongst Muslims as their main weakness and sought to ban plurality of interpretations. Everything had to be found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah; and even theology and philosophy, Ibn Taymiyya asserted boldly, had no place in Islam. The Qur’an had to be interpreted literally. When the Qur’an, for example, says God sits on His throne, He sits on His throne, period. No discussion can be entertained on the nature of the throne or its purpose. Nothing can be read metaphorically or symbolically.

The students from Medina University were fiercely loyal both to their Saudi mentors and their particular school of thought. The Wahhabism they learned was manufactured on the basis of tribal loyalty – but the place of traditional tribal allegiance was now taken by Islam. Everyone outside this territory was, by definition, a hostile dweller in the domain of unbelief. Those who stood outside their domain were not limited to non-Muslims; they included all those Muslims who have not given allegiance to Wahhabism. The ranks of unbelief were swollen by the Shias, the Sufis, and followers of other Islamic schools of thought…… The students would often tell me that any alliance with the unbelievers was itself unbelief; that one should not just refrain from associating or making friends with them, but should also shun their employment, advice, emulation, and try to avoid conviviality and affability towards them.

In Saudi Arabia ……all men in the Kingdom are dressed in white…..White is the natural colour for such an extreme climate; it reflects the sun and absorbs very little heat. Women have to be covered, from head to toe, by law, in black shrouds that absorb all the sun and all the heat. Women wear their shrouds ninja fashion, observing not traditional female Muslim dress, hijab, but the more extensive niqab, the head-covering that leaves only a narrow slit where the eyes are visible. The only place in Saudi Arabia where this refinement of dress is not seen is within the precincts of the Sacred Mosque itself where the conventional Islamic precepts of female garb include the requirement for the face to be uncovered.

By radically denying the complexity and diversity of Islamic history, over time and vast areas of the world, and rejecting diverse, pluralistic interpretations of Islam, Wahhabism has stripped Islam of all its ethical and moral content and reduced it to an arid list of dos and don’ts. To insist that anything that cannot be found in a literal reading of the sources and lore of early Muslims is kufr – outside the domain of Islam – and to enforce this comprehensive vision with brute force and severe social pressure for complete conformity spells totalitarianism.

…Wahhabism, I had concluded, had been employed to introduce two metaphysical catastrophes in Islam.
First, by closing the interpretations of our ‘absolute frame of reference’ – the Qur’an and the life of Prophet Muhammad – it had removed agency from believers …..Muslim societies were doomed to exist in suspended animation. If everything was a priori given, nothing new could really be accommodated. The intellect, human intelligence, became an irrelevant encumbrance since everything could be reduced to a simple comply/not comply formula derived from the thought of dead bearded men.
Second, by assuming that ethics and morality reached their apex, indeed an end point, with the Companions of the Prophet….. negated the very idea of evolution in human thought and morality. Indeed, it set Muslim civilization on a fixed course to perpetual decline. …..the challenge of our time, I argued, was to work out values and norms that were clearly and distinctively better than those worked out by Companions of the Prophet.

We Muslims live among the wreckage of our heritage, we lop off its sophistication, lose precious works of subtle minds that once strove to pursue inventiveness within our own dynamic framework.

Most Muslims consider the Shariah to be divine. But there is nothing divine about the Shariah, I explained. The only thing that can legitimately be described as divine in Islam is the Qur’an. The Shariah is a human construction; an attempt to understand the divine will in a particular context – and that context happens to be eighth-century Muslim society. We need to understand the Shariah in our own context; and reconstruct it from first principles…

….Asma Barlas … outspoken feminist scholar of Islam …..The Shariah, she explained, was formulated by jurists, all of them male, during the Abbasid period (749-1258), a time in history well known for its sexism and misogyny. This male bias is evident in the way the Shariah treates women and men unequally, particularly when it comes to criminal justice. An obvious example relates to testimonies where we have the notorious ‘two-for-one formula’. ‘Equating the testimony of two women with that of one man,’ said Asma, ‘naturally leads to a view of the woman being half a man’. But, explained Asma, the Qur’an discusses at least five cases which involve the giving of evidence, and in only one case does it suggest taking two women as witnesses in place of one man. In the far more crucial case of adultery, the Qur’an privileges the testimony of the wife over that of the husband. So, for example, if a husband charges his wife with adultery and cannot produce four male witnesses to the act of penetration, he cannot serve as his own witness. In such instances, the Qur’an allows the wife to testify on her own behalf and if she swears her innocence, it does not give her husband any further legal recourse against her. ‘Now, the classical jurists did not take this to mean that men should testify in fours or that the woman’s word outranks that of the man’s!’

The Shariah also fails to distinguish between different types of extramarital sex, Asma said. For example, it does not differentiate between adultery, fornication and rape. As a result, women who are victims of rape and sexual abuse can find themselves – and have found themselves, not just in Pakistan but also other Muslim countries like Nigeria and the Sudan – being charged with a crime and sentenced to be stoned to death. ‘Stoning to death,’ Asma emphasized, ‘is another aberrant law since the Qur’an does not sanction stoning to death for any crime whatsoever.’

‘….to call for reforming the Shariah is equated with an attach on Islam,’ Asma replied….. The Mullahs have been particularly clever in equating religion with law…. To change the Shariah we have to stand up to powerfully entrenched clerics and interpretative communities who will put up a deafening roar against such an exercise on the grounds that it is un-Islamic or even anti-Islamic. And in this way they continue to underwrite their own monopoly on religious knowledge. ‘Another irony for a people whose religion does not sanction a class of professional interpretators of religious knowledge in the form of a clergy’ ………. ‘The Shariah and veiling of women have become the quintessential symbols of Islam. As we know, the veneration of symbols can keep people from thinking about what the symbols actually symbolize.’

….Parvez Manzoor ….. ‘So, in essence, the Shariah is morality and ethics rather than law,’ I said.
‘Precisely,’ Parvez shot back …… ‘But the Muslim mind does not distinguish between ethics and law.’
‘What if law becomes unethical? And truth becomes equated with method?’
‘Ah,’ said Parvez, ‘this is precisely what happened in Islamic history.’
………There was no Shariah at the time of the death of Prophet Muhammad….. for almost 150 years after the death of the Prophet, the accumulated ensemble of the exercise of ‘learning’ and ‘understanding’, which was the religious knowledge of Islam, was not called the Shariah. This knowledge was largely personal, free and somewhat subjective. The first act of objectification and reification occurred during the early Abbasid period when this accumulated knowledge was confused with history ….. Thus, history became a substitute for religious inquiry and learning but as the historically frozen corpus of juristic rulings. The Will of God, which was previously discovered through intellectual methods, was now seen as being expressed in injunctions and prohibitions……. From the second Islamic century onwards there emerged a set of mechanisms, or disciplines, for understanding the Word of God. Toward the end of the Abbasid period, that is around the thirteenth century, this mechanism, known collectively as fiqh, came to constitute ‘the jurisprudence of Islam’. It entirely determined the form and content of the Shariah. ‘The “method” of the Shariah became indistinguishable from the “truth” of Islam itself,’ Parvez explained.
‘So, in fact, the Shariah, as understood by Muslims today, has nothing really to do with the truth of Islam. It is in fact largely fiqh, a body of historically frozen judicial thought and rulings?’
‘Indeed,’ replied Parvez. ‘It is a theoretically founded mechanism for traditional authoritarianism. Small wonder that Islamic theology and law have developed little since then.’
We both concurred that the method of the Shariah does not encourage bold, innovative and speculative thought. Its preoccupation with existentially concrete ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ stifles creative imagination, and as a consequence, makes Shariah-minded individuals and cultures conservative and backward-looking in their general outlook on life… has become a tool of oppression

I had finally reached a firm conclusion: without reforming the Shariah, which actually amounts to reformulating Islam itself, a humane earthly paradise will always elude Muslim societies….. Muslim individuals and communities had to reclaim agency: the right to reinterpret their religious texts according to their own time and context. In reality, the Shariah is nothing more than a set of principles, a framework of values that provides Muslim societies with guidance. But these sets of principles and values are not static or indeed a priori given, but are dynamically derived within changing contexts. And the duty to reinterpret the basic sources of Islam belongs not to revered men long dead, or to obscurantist Mullahs who exercise power over Muslim communities in the name of these classical scholars, but to each individual Muslim. The believers cannot simply be blind imitators….The hurdles obstructing the path to a new watering hole come, as they always have, from deeply entrenched religious and political power structures.

The European Reformation resulted in the transfer of authority for the governance of this world from the Church to the State, from Popes to princes. It was the origin of the process known as secularization. This began with the theological struggle for reform of religion, and it culminated in the secular state being seen as the only authority that could guarantee liberty of conscience and diversity of religious belief.

What do you get when you separate Shariah from the State, religion from politics? The question haunted Muslim scholars and thinkers from the early days of Islam. ….One of the foremost Muslim thinkers to give serious thought to this issue was the philosopher Al-Farabi…….belonged to a group of thinkers who were collectively known as the Mutazilites, literally the Separatists. …..all denounced strict, Shariah-based faith and worked to transform Islam into a more humanistic religion.  The Mutazilites argued that with reason alone one could know how to act morally; and by corollary, there was no necessity to combine religion and statecraft.

….Iftikar Malik …… ‘Secularism is the only antidote to the vicious literalism, supported by a spiritless and meaningless ritualism that’s taken hold of the Muslim mind’ ……..Iftikar was ready to concede that secularists can be just as doctrinaire as religious persons. But in his view secularism provided an umbrella for pluralism to flower, for dissent to be tolerated, for democracy to flourish in Muslim societies …. ‘…..I’m arguing for secularism not at the expense of religion but as a method for reinterpreting and revisiting religion itself.’

In France and Germany, Muslim girls in headscarves are often seen as a threat to secular civilization and banned from attending school. But non-Muslim (white) women wearing scarves are seen as chic and fashionable. Why this dichotomy? …. A secular society does not provide its citizens with absolute freedom but confines it within the boundaries of its own absolutes…..

‘…. “Islamic Revolution” in Iran. It’s the standard pattern: a charismatic leader heads the initial movement; once his regime is established, demands for greater radicalism and purism culminate in a reign of terror and virtue where the leader is transformed into a demigod and becomes sole arbitrator of what’s “revolutionary” and what “counter-revolutionary”. That’s what happened in Turkey. Mustafa Kemal played the role of demigod admirably: “I am Turkey,” he declared ….’

Where did the European Enlightenment come from? ….Its foundations were laid by Islam. Islam taught Europe virtually all it knew about science, philosophy and education……how to differentiate between civilization and barbarism, and to understand the basic features of a civil society. Islam trained Europe in scholastic and philosophic method, and bequeathed it its characteristic institutional forum of learning: the university. …showed Europe the distinction between medicine and magic, drilled it in making surgical instruments and explained how to establish and run hospitals. And the Ottomans played an important part in all this.’ …….. ‘Liberal humanism, the hallmark of post-Renaissance Europe’ Ekmeleddin explained, ‘has its origins in the adab movement of Islam, which was concerned with the etiquette of being human.’

………The Satanic Verses ……….. What I, and most Muslims, took exception to was Rushdie’s deliberate attempt to rewrite the life of Prophet Muhammad in an exceptionally abusive and obscene way…….. In the novel, Rushdie uses the abusive term ‘Mahound’, coined in the Middle Ages in Christendom to describe the Prophet as a devil, to reframe the biography of Muhammad……. The passages of The Satanic Verses that caused most offence to Muslims relate to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad. In the episode of the Curtain, a prostitutes’ den, Rushdie explicitly gives each prostitute the name of one of the wives..

Malay Islam is often described as ‘gentle’, moderate and eclectic ….. Much of this gentleness comes from mysticism….The Sufis….were more tolerant to pre-Islamic beliefs……left an indelible imprint on the Malay mind ….Spanish Islam too was deeply influenced by mysticism ……

‘What made Andalusia so successful for so long…..?’ asked Merryl.

….Gulzar Haider answered …..‘There was ethnic pluralism, religious tolerance, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and culture – from painting to poetry to music to philosophy. And no one thought these things to be un- or anti-Islamic. And now we lack them all.’

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