PUCL Bulletin, April 2003

Intellectual approach to Islam
-- By Asghar Ali Engineer

What is intellectual approach to religion? Is intellectual approach possible? Some people maintain that intellectual approach to religion is not possible, as it is basically spiritual experience. The questions religion raises are those which are out of realm of reason. Only spiritual or revelational experience can answer them. This is by and large true from one viewpoint.

Then what do we mean by intellectual approach to Islam? Is such an approach desirable? Before answering this question one has to properly define religion itself. What does one mean by religion? What areas does it embrace? It is often claimed by followers of different religions that it is a way of life which means it embraces all areas of life. No area of life can be excluded. If it is so religion does qualify for intellectual approach in several areas of life. What we generally mean by religion is quite comprehensive. It includes as it is known in Islamic terminology 'ibadat and mu'amalat. But what common people mean is even more comprehensive.

It includes for them all customs, traditions and even superstitious beliefs. All that they have inherited from their forefathers is included in religious beliefs and then one acts according to these beliefs. Any opposition to these beliefs is condemned as unpardonable heresy. Often even primitive knowledge about the universe became part of these religious beliefs. Thus both in Christian and Islamic tradition entire Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian observations about the universe became part of religious traditions. In many Islamic institutions of higher education even today Ptolemaic astrology is taught and Aristotelian beliefs are considered part of Islamic teachings. The Christian world has, by and large, changed its outlook in these matters. Islamic institutions and the 'ulama have not.

Thus, if religion is so defined, and made all inclusive, there is great need for intellectual approach to religion else we will become only a backward superstitious community. There is another difficulty here.

Any religious community, particularly in Asia and Africa, is highly stratified - economically apart culturally and educationally. Masses are often poor, illiterate and backward; the elite, on the other hand, are affluent and have higher educational qualifications. This stratification also affects understanding of religion. There is no uniform understanding of religion and religious beliefs. At one extreme i.e., at the level of poor and illiterate masses, religion is nothing more than superstition and superstitious practices. It is no use condemning such superstitions at the level of extremely poor, illiterate masses. What is needed is to improve their income and literacy rates. Thus actual fight against superstitions is not mere ideological but efforts to improve their living and literary standards.

It does not mean there are no superstitious beliefs at the level of those who are better off in terms of income and education. Often one finds even rich and educated believing in superstitions. Superstitions at such levels are borne out of insecurity, tensions due to irresolvable problems or incurable diseases; not for want of intellectual incapabilities or lack of proper understanding. Such people often expect miracles - miraculous cure, miraculous solution for their problems, and miraculous way of becoming rich.

Religion for most of us has become short cut to our problems. Belief in God - Allah - is not spiritual relations with the creator but He is looked as problem solver. It is important to note that in the Qur'an Allah is not projected as problem solver but as a Guide - Guide to right path. We are told to invoke Him for guiding to the right path - sirat al-mustaqim. Thus Allah is source of values - justice ('adl), benevolence (ihsan), compassion (rahmah) and wisdom (hikmah). Also, He is projected as creator and nourisher (rabb). He is the creator of all so He is nourisher of all. His guidance is for all, not for selected few. If someone follows His guidance and practices values the kind of problem we face will not arise. There will be no tension if we do no injustice, do not exploit others, show compassion to all, be benevolent to others and exercise wisdom gifted to us by Allah. It is we who create various problems through our wrong doings and then create problems for ourselves and for others.

If our behaviour is value-based there would be no need for miracles and for superstitious behaviour. The whole problem is our behaviour is not value-oriented, it is interest-oriented. We act not according to the values of our revealed scriptures, but to promote our personal interests. It is for this reason that we behave unjustly, greedily, maliciously, exploitatively, egoistically to promote our interests and in turn create conflict, bloodshed, murders and wars. The rulers wage wars for territorial ambitions and then pray for victory to the Almighty and expect miracles. And by sheer might of physical force if he or she wins the war it is projected as miracle and 'divine sanction'.

Islam is basically defined by what we call shari'ah which, as developed by the jurists over a period of time, includes both 'ibadat (matters relating to spiritual aspects) and mu'amalat (matters related to human interaction in this worldly matters). As far as 'ibadat is concerned they need not be judged intellectually but they too are not necessarily irrational or based on unreason. They may be beyond reason but not against reason. This distinction is important to make. 'Ibadat have their own rationale whether it is praying, fasting or pilgrimage or some other spiritual practices. They may not be same in all religions as every religion develops its own specific spiritual practices depending on history, culture and traditions. Qur'an very clearly emphasises this: "And for everyone is goal to which he turns (himself), so vie with one another in good works." (2:148) Thus emphasis is not on method or direction of prayer but on good (value-based) deeds. Again in 5:48 the Qur'an says "For every one of you, We appointed a law and a way."

The specificity, we should not remember, is not superiority. Much of irrational fights between religions can end if we accept specificities of 'ibadat for every religion and emphasise, as the Qur'an does, the ethical aspects of individual and collective behaviour. Also, it must be borne in mind that 'ibadat is a way of creating relationship between human being and her/his creator. Through this relationship one orders ones metaphysical aspects of life or builds theories of other worldly life. One also gives meaning to ones existence through spiritual relationship. One cannot lead meaningless life. One must give meaning to ones life through some or the other spiritual system. One thus enriches ones life through metaphysical relation with ones creator. Such an exercise of imparting meaning to ones life cannot be irrational though it may be beyond limitations of ones reason or comprehension. The role of intellect is very important as far as mu'amalat is concerned i.e., the human interactions in social matters of this world.

Some religions, depending on historical and cultural reasons, emphasise only spiritual aspects of religion i.e. 'ibadat and may not directly deal with mu'amalat leaving it to customs and traditions or to framing of laws by human beings. Qur'an, however, deals with legal aspects i.e. with mu'amalat. It does lays down certain laws for marriage, divorce, inheritance, property, theft, rape and so on. The shari'ah laws in this respect, are based on the Qur'anic pronouncements. It is in this sense that shari'ah is considered divine by Muslims. But it must be understood that Qur'an is much more concerned with justice in human matters (mu'amalat) than anything else. Justice ('adl) is very fundamental to Islamic values. It is most fundamental value and all human relations are to be based on justice. Unjust relationships lead to conflict and violence. But there is problem, defining justice.

Throughout human history justice was defined by the powerful. Might was considered as always right. But according to the Qur'an, any relationship based on exploitation of one by the other is unjust, unethical and punishable in this world by worldly laws and by Allah in the world hereafter. Thus the Qur'anic concept of non-exploitative relationship between human beings is an important contribution to human ethics and in the sphere of mu'amalat. This is, it must be admitted, very rational approach to morality and ethics. "Might is right" approach is most irrational and though prevalent even today where intellect is considered most developed, must be totally rejected. The Western world where reason is supposedly prevalent in relatively much more than in 'backward' countries of Asia and Africa, justice is often decided through use of might. The inter-human relationship is far from being non-exploitative.

The West dominates the world because of its might. Science has not been used rationally to promote common good but to monopolise resources for a few and hence there is so much conflict and violence in the world today. Today with all human intellectual development it is not difficult to understand that what is just is rational and only what is rational can bring stability on earth. Even the most advanced countries on our planet experience great turmoil because their system is exploitative and not just and what is unjust cannot be stable and hence that system is not rational despite its breath taking progress in science and technology. Science and technology is means to an end, not an end in itself. It is important to note that intellect is a tool and tool must be used in keeping with certain values to make it a boon for entire humanity.

Allah has gifted human beings with two most precious gifts - intellect and compassion and if the two are synthesized humanity will never suffer. We often use our intellect for selfish end and it becomes disaster for humanity. In twentieth century millions of people were killed in two wars with the help of science and technology. The world had never seen such destruction of human life before. Such destruction of human life took place with the help of human intellect as it was used for selfish ends. But if human intellect is used with compassion for human suffering world will turn into paradise. The Qur'an lays stress on hikmah (wisdom) more than anything else as it synthesizes both reason ('aql) and compassion (rahmah).

One of Allah's names is Hakim (wise) and if wisdom is exercised there will be no suffering on earth. The power of intellect will be used for doing away with human suffering and never for intensifying it. Unfortunately today power of human intellect is being used more for increasing human suffering than minimising it. Violence has been with us throughout human history and it is one of the greatest causes of human suffering in the world. With inventions of science and technology the power to perpetuate violence has increased beyond human imagination and this power is utilised by the most powerful nations to subjugate others or dominate others and to exploit the weak. The retaliatory violence on the part of the weak also tends to be horrific claiming innocent lives in the name of justice. Since the weak cannot match the power possessed by the powerful it adds another dreadful weapon - religious rhetoric to its armoury. 'Jihad' is such a religious rhetoric being employed in the Islamic world.
If one exercises wisdom as one of the important Qur'anic value, it will not be difficult to understand that such rhetoric is much more harmful to Muslims themselves.

It brings even more disaster and invites self-destruction as it happened in Afghanistan after attack on World Trade Centre, in New York. One must reflect seriously whether violence will pay to the weak. Violence, it should be obvious on little reflection ultimately benefits the powerful who possess much greater capacity to retaliate. Should one be then permanently subjugated or dominated? Certainly not. The world is increasingly accepting democratic values, human dignity and just governance. It still appears to be an empty rhetoric. But it is acquiring increasing urgency in the modern world. What is needed is ever greater efforts to disseminate these values through modern means of communication. This 'weaponry' of democratic values is far more powerful for the oppressed than arms. However, and it is important to note, before flinging these values i.e., democratic values, human dignity and just governance before the international powers, one has to struggle hard to apply them at home. Today in the entire Islamic world these values have no meaning. In the first place there is no democracy in these countries.

The very discourse of human dignity and human rights is rejected as 'western' while the rulers of these countries ironically depend for their very existence on the western powers whose values they reject so contemptuously. Thus it is quite a challenging job to struggle for political acceptance of these values of democratic governance at home. It is then alone that these Islamic countries will be able to confront the western dominating powers for a dignified and meaningful relationship with these powerful countries. Today the dictatorial governments of Islamic countries dependent for their existence on western powers cannot build any such relations with western countries. Also, there being no democratic freedom in these countries, a section of the youth uses violence against dominating countries in sheer frustration. And this violence, as pointed out before, proves more disastrous and also brings bad name to Islam. If one tenth of energy is spent on struggle for democratic governance by launching peaceful agitation it will be far more fruitful.

Today there is total absence of such democratic movements in the Islamic countries. It is true these movements are ruthlessly suppressed by the governments in Muslim countries but one has to after all fight for these values. This struggle for democratic governance will ultimately help fight for these values internationally. Peace in Islam, as repeatedly pointed out by this writer, is much more fundamental than 'jihad' and peaceful democratic struggles will earn much greater acceptability and sympathy for the just causes. Violence delegitimises the very cause one is fighting for. Suicide bombing in Palestine does not help the cause much. Israel, which is an aggressor and usurper, earn more sympathy world-wide. Suicide bombing has not earned any support for the cause of Palestinians anywhere, in any quarter. It has brought condemnation. Suicide bombing cannot be justified on Islamic grounds at all as it kills only innocent people, even school children who do not even understand the issues involved.

The Qur'an clearly says "..whoever kills a person, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he had killed a whole humanity. And whoever saves a life, it is as though one has saved entire humanity.." (5:32) Thus it will be seen that saving a life is as if one has saved entire humanity but suicide bombing instead of saving a life takes so many innocent lives who are neither responsible for manslaughter nor for mischief in the land. Suicide bombing is, thus, clear violation of the Qur'anic injunction. Suicide bombing not only kills the person himself which is certainly suicide, and not permissible, but also so many others, even a greater sin. Compassion for innocent lives is the greatest virtue. Even in jihad one is not permitted to kill women, children and old men whereas suicide bombing kills all without any distinction. How can it be justified? Also, it is no way to humiliate the Israeli Government, which is real culprit. There is no better way of shaming an oppressor than invoking justice and compassion.

A rational approach and not emotional one would help the cause of the oppressor much more than otherwise. If the Palestine movement had stuck to peaceful democratic values it would have won far more sympathisers outside the Islamic world. Today human rights discourse is far more powerful, despite its limitations in the unjust world order. Even in early twentieth century Gandhiji's weapon of non-violence proved to be mightier than the British Empire. The 'naked fakir' proved to be more powerful than the highly armed British Empire. Non-violent agitation is real combination of reason and compassion and is a great boon. Reason of course tells us that violence cannot help those with few weapons compared to those who have weapons to destroy the world several times over and compassion requires that no innocent life be taken. Jihad had some justification in the days when absolutist power prevailed and there was no acceptability for democratic discourse at all and peaceful and non-violent movement could not be launched.

One who takes cynical view can still insist that 'human rights discourse' is meant for weak and the powerful understand only the language of violence but it is not a wise view. If non-violence and discourse of peace is intensely and repeatedly applied it is bound to produce result and it has been tried by many. A real intellectual approach would reduce bloodshed in the world. A man of religion, a true Muslim, should be full of compassion as he/she worships Allah who is compassionate and merciful. Religion is nothing if not source of values and a religious person will be inspired by these values. Unfortunately religion is also hijacked by the powerful vested interests and rituals which occupy the centre stage, rather than values. Also, religion has become a source of submission to (unjust) authorities rather than a powerful resource for dissent from it. An intellectual approach will inspire us to be critical of unjust authorities and for submission to justice and compassion. A religious person will negate all that is unjust and will carry on jihad against unjust social structures. Compassion for life, to all forms of life, is real submission to its creator. Any person who destroys life cannot be real worshipper of the creator of this world. Negation of all forms of oppression through sustained peaceful struggle is real iman (faith) and a passionate commitment to justice and peace is real submission to Allah. It is both intellectual and compassionate approach. Not the love of tradition but tradition of love is the way out for suffering humanity. Human intellect and love of humanity and human dignity will redeem humanity


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