Islam Reimagined

I’ve never really had much time for ‘interfaith dialogue’. One reason for this is that whatever the original branches of thought once had in common, they have now diverged so much that little fertile ground is left for debate. It came as something of a surprise therefore to read a balanced, thoughtful and altogether understandable piece written by a Muslim on why Islam has become what it now is. I’ve adapted some of the text and made additional comments where necessary. My thanks to Ahmed Vanya – an interview with him can be read here – worth a look, I think.

Paraphrasing “When Muhammad died 632 CE, it is well understood and accepted that the Qur’an had not been compiled as literature for scholars to read and interpret. The messages said to have been revealed from God, or Allah, to Muhammad over a period in excess of two decades were either orally passed down or written on animal bones, leather and scraps of parchment, without systematic collection or  adequate background or context. The Prophet himself provided no authoritative narration or explanation for the Qur’anic verses while he was alive. He also did not provide a method for selecting his successor, nor did he authorise his companions to record the Hadith (his actions and sayings) while he was alive. Later, therefore, subsequent generations had to sift through mountains of material of dubious provenance, in an age when record-keeping was primitive and during a period of discord, partisanship and violence, even among those who were close to the Prophet”. There was no Council of Nicaea to establish the weight and value of the material – all, it seemed, carried equal authority. When viewed in this light, it is little more than sophistry to an educated, free-thinking Muslim to expect historical accuracy or precise interpretation.

“In the early days of Islam, after Muhammad’s death, Muslims splintered into many sects and factions, in much the same way as Christianity had done, six hundred years earlier. There were endless debates about doctrine, theology, and religious law, due to divergent interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadiths. Between the eighth and tenth centuries, a school of theology known as  the Mu’tazila flourished in what is now modern Basra and Baghdad. Their adherents were best known for their assertion that, because of the perfect unity and eternal nature of Allah, the Qur’an must therefore have been created, as it could not be co-eternal with God. From this premise, the Mu’tazili school of kalaam(best translated as Islamic apologetics) suggested that the injunctions of God are accessible to rational thought and inquiry and because knowledge is derived from reason, reason is the final arbiter in distinguishing right from wrong. Not unsurprisingly, they waged an intellectual battle with the traditionalists, who gave absolute primacy to strict literal interpretations of the revealed texts: the Qu’ran and the Hadiths. Unfortunately for the future of the Islamic tradition, the literal traditionalists won the struggle, and went on to establish among the Sunni Muslims the four legal schools of Shari’a, which became the dominant form of Islam from then onwards. This mainstream, legalistic, text-bound, literalist Islam, controlled by traditional Muslim scholars, a mixture of humanistic and ethical values with a supremacist ethos, developed through the centuries is what has reached us today. Due to its literalist tradition, it does not have the flexibility or the ability to overcome interpretations of the scriptures that are inimical to pluralistic and humanistic values. Many equate this literalist view to be representative of the “true” Islam”. But just because it is the dominant form, it does not mean that it is necessarily “true”. Religious traditions change and even metamorphose over time, based on understanding underpinned by cultural awareness and increased knowledge, interpretations, and practices of their adherents. By analogy, over the years, Christianity has on the one hand thrown up organisations as barbaric and brutal as the Inquisition, on the other, looked back to its founding fathers in a desire to ‘get back’ to the Second Chapter of Acts and in so doing, sought to impart ancient truth with cultural relevance. Therefore, using reason and common sense, why cannot modern thinking find a way to reinterpret Muslim texts to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values? Like most religious practice, the pathway of convenience, even laziness is often the most popular, which in some leads to support for Muslim charities and other agencies with little real thought for whether or not their money is being used for subversive, even violent causes. For others, thinking becomes subsumed into blind, unreasoning obedience and cults like ISIL flourish under its banner. As reasonable voices are raised in protest, however, it seems inconceivable that savage, medieval barbarity will overcome and drive the world back into the Dark Ages.