To Cultivate Hatred as a Civic Passion

islamic_intoleranceshia-kafir

10463-ahmadi-1330501932-937-640x480

“Why are you after the Jews in particular?”

“Because in Russia there are Jews. If I were living in Turkey, I would be after the Armenians.”

“So you want the Jews to be destroyed?”

“I don’t want to destroy the Jews. I might even say the Jews are my best allies. I’m interested in the morale of the Russian people. It is my wish (and the wish of those I hope to please) that these people do not direct their discontent against the Tsar. We therefore need an enemy. There’s no point looking for an enemy among, I don’t know, the Mongols or the Tatars, as despots have done in the past. For the enemy to be recognized and feared, he has to be in your home or on your doorstep. Hence the Jews. Divine providence has given them to us, and so, by God, let us use them, and pray there’s always some Jew to fear and to hate. We need an enemy to give people hope. Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards; those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and the bastards always talk about the purity of the race. National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal. That is why Christ was killed: he spoke against nature. You don’t love someone for your whole life — that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends . . . But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he’s always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart.”

(Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery)

 

Advertisements

On Plight of Modern Man (I): Spaces for Self-Annihilation

The most intelligent minds of our age do not find theism as a reasonable choice and many smart people have a tendency to willingly or inadvertently destroy what is seemingly good for them. These are two simple contentions that came up during exchanges with two different friends this week. Given the room to disagree with both the contentions, there is indeed a lot of underlying truth. In my view, from a contemporary perspective, even though both the contentions seem different at first glance, they are in fact two different aspects of the same modern phenomenon.

Needless to argue that there are no stringent universal principles that define the most basic human disposition, just as there are no universal definitions of notions like reason and and objectivity. All of us have our share of craziness, irrationality and subjectivity all the time, albeit in varying degrees. Speaking about the extremity of this spectrum, insanity, madness and nihilistic tendencies are also manifestations of an allegedly darker or twisted side of human nature.

Regardless of its expression, one characteristic of this disposition is persistent denial of norm; any kind of norm, may it be the social, moral, ethnic or religious. Since antiquity, from the time of great Greek sophists, highly intellectual people, including sages, philosophers and prophets, have been consistently depicting this tendency to grapple with this urge for denial, as opposed to those who are perhaps seemingly a little low on the intellectual curve, and thus not equipped to challenge the established norm through reason. In any case, this urge to deny has always been supported with diverse rational grounds, such as spiritual dictates of the self, desired social good against an existing tyranny or revelation of new religion.

With the advent of modernity, however, this same urge to deny has transformed itself into two novel dimensions, that is, 1) the ontic dimension wherein the modern individual has gone to the extent of denying his own existence and 2) the epistemic dimension wherein the denial is manifested in the form of absolute disregard of any modes of knowledge beyond empiricism. The first part of this exposition deals with the former dimension, that is, nihilism.

****************

I have failed not only to become spiteful – but to become anything else for that matter: vicious or kind, scoundrel or honest man, hero or insect. And now I am living out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the vicious and useless consolation that an intelligent man of the nineteenth century can’t seriously make himself into anything and that only a fool can succeed in making himself into something. Yes, sir, an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be – indeed is morally bound to be – essentially a creature without character. – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground [1]

Isn’t it interesting that when a layman like me tries to recall any notable suicidal accounts of antiquity, the only names that immediately come to mind are the peculiarly motivated instances such as Marcus Antonius and  Cleopatra; or, the ones which are committed under duress, such as drinking of hemlock by Socrates; or what is sociologically termed as an egoistic suicide, such as the one committed by Cato the Younger or Hannibal?

Indeed there are many more such accounts for more or less similar reasons. However, regardless of the specific data throwing some light on the socio-psychological motives from the ancient as well as pre-modern times, I want to contend that if it was not for French (and later Russian) obsession with popularizing, what has been regarded as a social deviance during antiquity and middle ages, we might not have been introduced to the notion of plausibility of suicide as a valid moral choice. Therefore it is not startling that every child of modernity is kind of awed (if not completely obsessed) by the suicides of highly enlightened and extraordinary gifted intellectuals such as Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf or David Foster Wallace.

It was perhaps Durkheim’s 1897 masterpiece [2], which brought the phenomenon of suicide from the accidental, emotive and provocative domains to a more formal ambit of statistical sociology and therapeutic domains. According to Ian Hacking, who tries to put various modern and post-modern in the statistical context [3], the earliest recorded English and French instances of the word occur somewhere around 1651 and 1734, respectively. But even before Voltaire’s first usage of the word in 1739, enlightenment gave way to a kind of ‘anticlerical’ tradition which exerted peculiar thematic influences, which not only created spaces for viewing the phenomenon from new moral and rational standpoints, but also vaguely defended it as a moral choice, albeit a radical one.

Therefore, it is no wonder that since the formative period of the so-called age of enlightenment, there is no dearth of expression of awe in the literature. Hence, whether it is Voltaire’s defence of Cato the Younger and his suicide [4], Thomas More’s recommendation of voluntary suicide in his Utopia [5], Montaigne’s reference to Roman reverence for their heroes who committed suicide [6] or Hume’s strong challenge to classical Thomistic arguments [7], an individual’s choice for self-annihilation is a recurring theme in the whole enlightenment literature.

But post-formative literary movements of 19th and 20th century, supplied two fresh perspectives to whole moral and rational enquiry around existential nihilism.

One, that there is inherently no universal meaning in life except that the ultimately authority providing the essential basis of meaning rests with the individual. Consequently, man is essentially and incessantly confronting the absurd. Due to this sheer meaninglessness, the concepts like good, bad, love or hate are merely the abstract manifestations of the universal ‘absurd’ and therefore, nothing but ludicrous. Hence, whether its the underground man of Dostoevsky, the new man – the essential rejecter of Turgenev or the ‘condemned’ hero of Sartre or Albert Camus, all are perplexed between their being and nothingness [8].

Two, that this meaninglessness of  life is not just an inherent absurd characteristic but there is also an underlying element of rationality to it. Therefore, we see, for instance as in the case of Dostoevsky’s man under the floorboards, that the absurdity is not only provoking perplexity but also a kind of natural response to celebrate the very acknowledgement of this psychological condition. Hence, we see that the nihilist – the ‘new man’ – is not only emerging as a self-annihilating idol but also as a supra-intelligent agent which rises above the ordinary intelligence of his so-called social interlocutors and denies the whole existence of the cosmos with full force.

What is important to note that both these dimensions of nihilism are not just the logical imports from philosophies of enlightenment but are quickly being backed by a more scientific post-modern discourse.  Therefore, it should not be surprising for an observant reader aware with modern scientific developments that modern human being is increasingly being studied through the lens, which have been primarily used to study the animals in pre-modern societies. Modern evolutionary psychology is quickly transforming itself into a religion, giving way to a cult of self-worship [9].

A logical import of these scientific developments combined with the existentialist/ nihilistic philosophies is that the modern man is essentially born to be pleased [10], unlike the pre-modern man who was essentially born to be good and consequently, saved. Just like Dostoevsky or Sartre’s hero, a modern man is always trapped between social-alienation and a kind of lethal narcissism. His ultimate aim is to somehow find a way to tackle his perennial confrontation with boredom. In the words of David Foster Wallace,

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish [11].

The following part of this exposition would attempt to study the same original question from the second perspective, that is, how post-modern sensibilities have given way to agnosticism and atheism as a completely rational and valid moral choice.

________________________________

  1. The translation is from Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, the version published by Oneworld Classics.
  2.  Émile Durkheim (1897), Suicide.
  3. Ian Hacking (1990), The Taming of Chance.
  4. Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, Part IICato. On Suicide, and the Abbe St. Cyran’s Book Legitimating Suicide.
  5. Thomas More, Utopia.
  6. Michel De Montaigne, The Complete Essays. It is interesting to note that the word for ‘suicide’ did not exist in French in 1580. For an interesting analysis, please refer to Patrick Henry, The Dialectic of Suicide in Montaigne’s “Coustume de l’Isle de Cea”, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 278-289.
  7. David Hume (1783), Of Suicide.
  8. The existentialist/ nihilist themes are continuously explored by the mentioned writers. Some representative fictional works are for instance, Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground; Turgenev, Fathers and Sons;  Jean-Paul Sartre,  Nausea; and  Albert Camus, The Stranger.
  9. Paul C. Vitz (1979), Psychology as Religion: The 

    Cult of Self-Worship.

  10. Philip Rieff (1987), The Triumph of the Thera

    peutic.

     

  11. David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

Is Islam a patriarchical tradition (II): Exegesis or Eisegesis

Those who listen to the Word, and follow the best (meaning) in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided, and those are the ones endued with understanding. (Al Quran 39:18)

Every interpreter comes to the text bearing those complex histories of effects we call tradition. There is no more a possibility of escape from tradition than there is a possibility of an escape from history or language. (David Tracy in Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope)

Interpretation being a human enterprise primarily means that it would be essentially modulated by inherent subjectivities of the interpreters, about which they might not be fully aware of themselves. This is because we cannot claim objectivity beyond our personal and social construct of reality. This is exactly the kind of subjectivity which Heidegger calls a reader’s ‘pre-understanding‘ and Gadamer terms as their ‘effect histories‘. Farid Esack, a South African Muslim scholar, terms interpreters as ‘beasts of many burdens‘ and contends that the whole concept of meaning is null and void unless an active and perpetual participation of the reader is assumed [1].

Consequently, as each reader brings along his own burden of contemporary contexts as well as innermost constructs of thought, all of them are bound to approach Quranic text with essentially different viewpoints. Speaking of gender and human sexuality, for instance, is it justifiable (philosophically as well as psychologically) that readings of men, women or eunuchs are understood to produce exactly similar meanings of the scripture? In the words of Cantwell Smith [2],

If you yourself are a Muslim writing a commentary; or a Sufi pir instructing your murid [disciple]; or a conscientious jurisconsult deciding a tricky point of law; or are a modern oxford educated Muslim reflecting on contemporary life; or a 12th century Sherazi housewife; or are a left wing leader of the slave revolt of the Zanji protesting against what seem to you the exploitation and hypocrisy of the establishment – in all such cases the correct interpretation of the particular Quran verse is the best possible interpretation that comes to you or that you can think up.

But the contention, as Smith continues to expound further, does not mean that these individual interpretations are intentionally crafted to concoct pre-concieved meanings of the scripture; rather, these interpretatins represents true will of God in the sincere and uncontrived good judgment of the respective interpreters. Moreover, the fact that one absolutely objective correct reading cannot be claimed by any of the readers does not necessitate that all these individual readings are rendered false. In fact, it is always likely that one of these subjective readings is rendered absolutely true, representing fully well the original intent of the God but there is no way of authoritatively claiming that, since one cannot speak in God’s name; and therefore, the usual concluding remark at the end of all traditional discourses: and God knows best.

While moving towards a better understanding of nature of conservative Quranic exegesis, it is perhaps more fruitful to invoke a framework of tradition rather than aforementioned individual subjectivities. Many contemporary scholars, for instance Fazlur Rahman [3], Amin Ahsan Islahi [4] and Mustansar Mir [5] have noted that traditional exegetes of the Quran generally failed to access it in hermeneutic totality and instead took it as a lineary constructed incoherent text without any literary considerations of textual groups (and sub-groups) with consistent thematic elements and clusters of verses addressed to specific groups of original addressees in their respective contexts. The occassions of revelation (asbab al-nuzul) which these exegetes often refer to are disjointed solitary narrations often having distant contextual imports which are seldom agreed unanimously among themselves. Moreover, there had always been disagreements regarding more important concepts such as nature and extent of abrogation (naskh) and the scriptural content which has been abrogated by the later content.

On a more complex note, originators as well as heirs of this conservative discourse did not possess adequate philosophical tools to realize the true social import of Muslim belief that real Quran is the eternal speech of God and the text between the covers (famously called bayn al duf’atay’n in traditional literature) is its earthly realization [6]; thereby, creating coalesced layers of paradoxes, which on one hand confused Divine ontology with Divine discourse and confused the eternal Quran with its readings on the other.

As the traditions became crystallized and meanings of the scripture were faithfully transferred to next generations of students, complexities like these were eventually buried under the burden of tradition . Consequently, these tendencies to access Quran atomistically and somewhat randomly resulted in future inabilities to consider it as an integrated document perpetually unfolding itself in time.

This hermeneutic view that Divine discourse is unfolding itself in time is well synced with the Quranic claims of divinity, transcendence and applicability for diverse individual and social realities including those which are yet to be realized. These claims are indeed ascribed by conservatives as well, but unfortunately, the failures (or inabilities) to respond to complex hermeneutical paradoxes resulted in a perplexed state of denial as well as acceptance; i.e., denial of historicity and acceptance of some form of imaginary time in which meaning of Divine discourse is strictly atemporal and situated historically.

Furthermore, these subjective responses were always supplemented by an equally ambiguous notion of authorized readings of the scripture, whereas contemporary readings as well as modern hermeneutical methods being rejected as biased and whimsical without due deliberation. Interestingly all the problems followed by assuming this notion of misplaced authority were also referred circularly to the same authority.

A simple and concrete example to depict these interpretive tendencies is verse 33 of Surah al-Ahzaab translated as [7]:

And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former Times of Ignorance; and establish regular Prayer, and give regular Charity; and obey Allah and His Messenger. And Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, ye members of the Family, and to make you pure and spotless.

Bulk of contemporary conservative exegesis (which in Sunni Islam is conventionally understood to be authorized by an ambiguous authority ahl-e-sunnah wal-jamaah) interprets this verse to contain a mandatory (and commendatory according to some) directive for all Muslim women to remain confined to their homes without an urgent need, which would not be decided by the women themselves but scholars of ahl-e-sunnah wal-jamaah. The popular sermons preached in street mosques display amazing selectivity and seldom mention it (perhaps in a cursory manner) that the said verse is actually addressed to the wives of the Prophet. This is evident by the beginning of the preceding verse (33:32) which states ‘O Consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other) women…‘ and also by the end of this verse (33:33) in which ‘members of the family‘ are again mentioned exclusively.

Many orthodox exegetes (for instance Tabari and Ibn Kathir) of early and medieval Islam indeed mention this fact in their respective interpretations while also generalizing the import of this verse for all Muslim women as according to these scholars, they should follow the exemplary character of Prophet’s wives. According to them, the directive was understood in a general sense by the earliest Muslim community, as indicated by some of the historical reports. This is obviously a claim, which though hard to establish for each single woman of that community, can easily be explained by the fact that it was generally a homogeneous community with extraordinary sense of piety due to various factors including presence of God’s Prophet among them.

Furthermore, these exegetes never state categorically that this directive has explicit mandatory value for all Muslim women and seldom brings this issue as a primary message of the verse. Bulk of their interpretations consist of other pertinent issues related to the context of the ayah (and Surah al-Ahzab in general) for which Prophet’s household was cautioned and directed to observe extra care, caution and character. In line with their method of using traditions for interpretation, these traditional scholars also dwell upon sundry issues like the ‘dazzling‘ character displayed by many women during the pre-Islamic (Jahilia) society.

However, the contemporary patriarchical minds employ an extremely piecemeal and authoritarian approach to interpret it as an explicit directive for all Muslim women. Indeed many other misogynist and sexist interpretations can be easily traced back to their respective originating traditions which were not considered as patriarchical in their respective historical and social conditions; but all of course, are not that simple to deconstruct.

In the context of revisiting (and contesting) patriarchical and authoritarian readings of Quran and Hadith, there is a need to retrieve the ‘antipatriarchical epistemology‘ [8] of these texts while also moving towards a unified hermeneutics based upon ethico-religious principles of Quran. There has already been an encouraging trend in contemporary scholarship for finding keys which can be used to enter into Quran-centered hermeneutics in contrast to the bulk of the orthodox approach which is generally tradition-centered. Even though these keys vary according to respective motivations of the scholars, for instance God-consciousness and social justice in case of Fazlur Rahman; Divine unity, justice and incomparability in case of Asma Barlas; Taqwa, Tawhid and liberation of opressed in case of Farid Esack; or Divine justice and Beauty in case of Khalid Abou Al-Fadl [9], all these modernists present a common argument rooted in socio-historical perspectives in which God’s word is not merely an event of the past but a perpetual phenomenon always meaningful to contemporary realities.

Interestingly this aspect of transcendence of God’s word is shared by conservatives as well, but of course with a different (and myopic) viewpoint of history and society with respect to religion and religious authority. There are encouraging pointers in the fact that at least some of these modernists had formal religious education from traditionalist madrasas
at the start of their carriers (for instance Rahman and Esack) thus being exposed to whole myriad of complexities inherent in their discourses. To conclude with the profound words of Farid Esack,

The urgent need of contemporary Quranic scholarship is to remove preunderstanding from the much-maligned tafsir bi’l-ra’y (interpretation based on considered sound reasoning) which, in conservative discourse, has come to mean baseless and devious theological or political concoctions superimposed on the Quran.

______________________________

  1. Farid Esack, Quran, Liberation and Pluralism.
  2. Wilfred Cantwell-Smith, The True Meaning of Scripture: An Empirical Historian’s Non-Reductionist Interpretation of the Quran.
  3. This indeed is a recurring theme in Rahman’s various works, especially Islam or Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition.
  4. Amin Ahsan Islahi’s exegetical work Taddabbur-e-Quran is considered one of the best among the modernists and published in Urdu in 8 Volumes. Some parts have been translated in English and can be accessed here.
  5. Mustansir Mir, Thematic and structural coherence in the Quran: a study of ‘Islahi’s concept of Nazm and The Sura as a Unity: A twentieth century development in Qur’an exegesis.
  6. The concept has firm basis in Quran, for instance 85:21.
  7. The quoted translation is Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s.
  8. The term is borrowed from Asma Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an.
  9. Khalid Abou Al Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women.

Is Islam a patriarchical tradition (I): Understanding the hermeneutical gap

We have made it a Qur’an in Arabic, that ye may be able to understand.     (Al Quran, 43:3)
Nothing exists except through language.
-Gadamer in Truth and Method

Islamic tradition, in many ways, can be described as a tradition of literature and one way to legitimately analyze the above question is to ask whether the core Islamic texts, i.e., Quran and Hadith are necessarily patriarchical [1]. Although it is true that Quran was originally revealed in a primarily patriarchical society and, at least in Islamic tradition’s formative and post-formative periods, interpreted mostly by the subjects of patriarchies, its text equally allows more coherent, less subjective and unauthoritarian interpretations to contest the popular traditionalist (or orthodox) interpretations with a visible patriarchical bent [2].

A direct import of these orthodox interpretations is that the core texts of Islamic tradition are explicitly sexist in favor of men and advocate a society in which women are essentially subjected to men. Interestingly, these interpretations have ontological as well as hermeneutical basis: ontological, because women are created after/ from men and thus their purpose of creation merely reduces to service provision to a superior creation and hermeneutical, because literal, authoritative and patriarchical readings of the text dictate so.

JunaidJamshedThese patriarchical and to some extent misogynist interpretations of scripture have far reaching implications for the society because they not only serve to demean the status of majority (or at least half) of the Muslim population, thereby subjecting them to the other half, but also render scripture as a misogynist text purporting women as a creation which is essentially unclean, deficient in intellect and created primarily ‘for‘ men. In fact, these readings are authoritatively used to an extent that serving husbands, for instance, is popularly preached as an essential article of a wife’s faith. Indeed, more crass and popularly sold interpretations boastfully build upon vivid details to create a kind of pietism in men where women merely fit as a serving commodity and must not be ‘used more than physically necessary‘ because the real pleasure is coming their way in heavens [3]. But till that time, being an inherent distraction for man’s sexual urges, they should be confined to houses and should be covered from head to toe if they come out.

It is interesting that same interpretations, if objected to, quickly rely upon socio-historical narratives – which are also rooted well in the scripture but generally reduced to secondary narratives in terms of employing them in the popular social discourse – that Islam liberated women from the pre-Islamic traditions and raised their status in a society where daughters were considered a disgrace and female infanticide was a norm.

In my view, the first step towards unreading these oppressively authoritarian and patriarchical interpretations of the scripture is to characterize the hermeneutical tendencies of these predominantly sexist readings. There are various dimensions of this characterization and at least two different broad layers at which critique can be carried out to articulate some right questions: 1) a complete disregard of the so-called hermeneutical gap between various stages of development of Islamic tradition and 2) an almost ambiguous notion of authority, which presumes a monolithic and anachronistic view of interpretive tradition as well as Islamic societies in which that tradition was developed, thereby aiding authoritarian (mis)use of the scripture.

It is perhaps a trite observation that any form of scriptural interpretation is aimed at deciphering the will of God. In Islamic theological tradition, this will, after the demise of Prophet, is essentially embodied in the form of text. It is important to note this peculiarity of character because no human being after the Prophet can explicitly claim absolute knowledge of God’s will. Prophet too, as obvious from the explicit pointers in Quran [4], only possessed that knowledge due to his exceptional status as a messenger of God, thereby giving this possession a kind of metaphysically intuitive miraculous character, not discernible through ordinary human intellect.

This observation, however, must not be misconstrued to understand that I am in anyway implying delimitation of Prophet’s authority and diminishing his interpretive role [5]. In fact, being the direct recipient of revelation and its carrier, Prophet’s will (that is Sunnah) is only the second most important source of Islamic law after Quran; however, this will is also contained in textual reports [6], which are preserved, transmitted and defended by generations of Muslims. The peculiar textual nature of this will is evident by the fact that Muslims have proudly developed exceptionally scientific methods to criticize these textual (and once oral) reports for validity of the content as well as authenticity of transmission. Deciphering God’s will, therefore, since the formative periods of Islam is essentially an interpretive enterprise; and any claim regarding absolute and exhaustive knowledge of that will would not only be fallacious but can be seen as effectively claiming the interpretive character of none other than Prophet himself.

Many modern semantic theories generally characterize texts through three dimensional models which, in one way or the other, incorporate roles of author, reader and the text itself in the hermeneutical or interpretive undertakings. Moreover, these three components are always interrelated as texts are understood to be bound by contexts and contain words with multiple communities of meanings which are used by readers (as they access texts) to decipher the original intent (or will) of the author. Jorge Gracia, a contemporary expert on texts, defines them [7] as

Groups of entities, used as signs, that are selected, arranged and intended by an author in a certain context to convey some specific meanings to an audience.

This is indeed a conservatively concise definition (not involving artifacts and other art forms) but enough to convey the complexities that surround a text for our present purpose. Moreover, this definition explicitly implies that all texts (and Divine ones are no exception) allow variant readings by nature, as all the audience are bound to disagree regarding the original intent of the author to some extent, thus goes the famous cliche that no two persons ever read the same book.

Admittedly, this definition is rather more fluidly structured than the conventional concept of Nass [8] in Islamic tradition, which is more stringently structured and symmetrically deterministic to cater for Quranic claim of divinity, transcendence and immutability; rightly so, because of the peculiar character of the author here – who is Himself believed to be Divine and Transcendent – which necessitates a faith-based assumption that He must have chosen and structured each word and phrase carefully enough to convey His full intent in best possible manner. Yet, these are still words and to paraphrase a saying attributed to Ali Ibn Abi Talib- one of the most knowledgeable and equipped exegetes in whole Islamic tradition – Quran is but ink and paper and ultimately it is a human enterprise which makes sense of it. In other words, it is reasonable to contend that language is an imperfect medium, and the faith-based assumption that God uses that medium perfectly does not reduces the inherent ambiguities and complexities of the medium itself.

Therefore, any interpretive indulgence remaining within the conventional dictates of language, thereby not relying on some esoteric knowledge inaccessible by the whole linguistic community or employing an orphic or quasi-orphic semiotic and semantic framework, has to be respected as a reasonable interpretation of scripture and a well intended exercise to decipher God’s will, albeit allowing disagreement and criticism by adherents of other readings.                                                                                                     ______________________________________

  1. It is important to note that I am not mentioning the sources of Islamic law but the core texts; the former implies sources other than Quran and Sunnah, with Sunnah being defined in various ways and other sources being selected and weighed according to methodological dictates of a particular juridic tradition or an individual jurisconsult. I employ the terminology of text as it is more in line with the present framework of inquiry.
  2. I hate to simplistically employ complex (and often confusing) terminologies like traditional or orthodox but unfortunately the present discourse in predominantly patriarchical Muslim societies like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia demands that; primarily, because adherents to these patriarchical readings of scripture themselves choose to employ these cliches and love to associate with these dualities.
  3. An example is recently circulated video lecture by a Pakistanic scholar on connubial pleasures in heaven. The lecture is in Urdu titled Jannat Ki Hoor and can be accessed here.
  4. See for instance, verse 41:6 or 6:50.
  5. My views on the question of Prophetic authority can be accessed here and here.
  6. To contend that Sunnah is only contained in textual reports (i.e., Hadith) is rather another oversimplification, but one which is the popularly held orthodox stance; in reality, there are classical as well as modernist schools and individuals who also/ or only believed in some form of perpetually transmitted practice as Sunnah, which obviously is supported by textual reports too.
  7. Jorge Gracia, Texts: Ontological Status, Identity, Author, Audience.
  8. Nass is a term used in Islamic jurisprudence to generally mean a clear legal injunction; however, there are other specific legal connotations too, for instance, declaring a legal injunction as Nass may entail that there is not an iota of doubt that the said injunction can be authentically traced back to the originator, which may be God or the Prophet.

Discoursing Blasphemy (I): Deconstructing the Contemporary Authoritarian Context

The materials could be used to construct either the authoritative or the authoritarian. If the authoritarian is constructed, the text is rendered subservient and submerged into its representer and reader. If authoritative is constructed, the text survives unencumbered and unlimited by its representer and reader. – Khaled Abou El Fadl in Conference of the Books

Imagine your were born into a middle or lower-middle class Christian family in Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This ironic accident of nature would automatically grant you the deplorable status among approximately one percent ignorant, disbelieving and impure inhabitants of the otherwise land of the pure. Stretch your imagination a little further and assume being grown up to become an individual with religious conviction in line with any of the mainstream Christian denominations. Needless to add that you would strongly believe in fundamentals of your religion; fundamentals, which unlike Islam, do not necessitate belief in other Prophets and the truthfulness of their message. Obviously, you would not have a smidge of reverence for Prophet Muhammad or Quran in your heart.

At this point, a number of hypothesis can be proffered; however, among worst-case scenarios, lets just assume that you truly happen to doubt the historicity of Islam and its venerated Prophet, who erroneously – or with the sheer intent of deceit – pretended to be the last Messenger of God [1]. With truthful compassion and deep sincerity, you do not, for a moment, regard Quran as a piece of literature on which “a society can be safely of sensibly based”. Furthermore, you might consider it a “crude, endless iteration” faked as God’s word, and whose reading, would be a “toilsome experience” [2].

Now, would you reckon pronouncing your belief publicly in a decent, truthful and academic manner without facing charges for the crime of blasphemy and instigating Islamist upheavals demanding your death? And if the sheer simplicity of this hypothetical proposition is not enough to demonstrate the hidden strata of ironies, lets put it this way: the accident of your birth (and what you come to believe subsequently) might leave you with a strict binary choice in the land of the pure, i.e., live dishonorably as an infidel hypocrite or die ignominiously as a profane blasphemer.

There has been plenty of discussion in print and electronic media regarding the infamous blasphemy law of Pakistan. A common supporting argument, usually initiated to evade the real question regarding the actual religious basis of the law, goes like this: there is nothing wrong with the law itself, and therefore the soundness of religious injunctive value attached to it; however, there may be flaws in its procedural implementations – as there in almost all other clauses of Pakistan Penal Code – which can be exploited to prosecute people unjustly.

I want to argue here that the above proposition is flawed for two distinct but often interactive reasons: 1) it overlooks an important lingual nuance in the framing of the law itself and 2) it supplies us with a presumably monolithic, homogeneous and historically connected Islamic definition and character of blasphemy.

Coming first to textual ambiguity in framing the language of the law (295-C), which is hard to miss even by a careless reader. It is not too difficult to understand that terms like “derogatory remarks, etc.”, “imputation”, “innuendo”, “insinuation” and “defiles the sacred name” can be misconstrued and misused easily. In fact it is so easy that a mere refusal to insert the common salutations after the name of the Prophet due to simple academic and publishing requirements can be easily misconstrued as blasphemy and can be portrayed socially to incite dangerous reactions. This mostly ignorant and reactive social milieu is tragically ironic to an extent that prestigious publishers in Pakistan, e.g., Oxford University Press, insert ‘PBUH’ after the name of the Prophet as an ‘in-house policy’ to avoid unnecessary hue and cry [3].

What is more troubling, however, is the ease with which the question regarding real definition and character of blasphemy is circumvented by the street mullahs, facebook zealots and common people who enthusiastically – and at times, inadvertently – support murderers.

Starting from the time of Greek Sophists, blasphemy has a long and vicious history in all canonical religions, especially Christianity [4]. In more than one way, Islam emphatically redefined the sacred in relation to an individual and society and placed it in its correct metaphysical and eschatological perspective. While the divine message was repetitively explained with exceptional clarity and forceful persuasion (3:85; 4:125), submission of an individual was eventually came about in Islamic theology as a matter of personal preference without any compulsions (2:256) by the society or Muslim polity; and as a human psychological condition which may have immediate and distant repercussions in this world but will be judged ultimately in hereafter. Moreover, the assertive statement in Quran (18:29) that

Say, “The truth is from your Lord”: Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it)…

tends to establish a clear contrast with the Christian dogma that thoughts can blaspheme too and therefore subject to confession [5]. Ultimately, in Islamic theological doctrine, sacredness and sanctity of the symbols of God is contingent upon submission of the individual in first place (5:2).

In this backdrop, classical Islamic jurists always considered an individual’s personal religious conviction to be a matter between him and his Creator (baynahu wa bayna rabbiy). Some of them theorized further, discussing extensively the underlying theological intricacies, and argued that the Islamic doctrine of kufr simply means non-belief in the truthfulness of the Prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh) – a psychological condition which should not be considered immoral for all worldly purposes [6].  Thus, regardless of its rare practical implementation, the classical advocacy of capital punishment for apostasy is not because of a Muslim’s intellectual subjection to a false doctrine but due to its direct and indirect sociopolitical consequences – a sense which is more in line with the modern concept of high treason against one’s government.

It is also pertinent to note that all convictions of presumed blasphemy – or heresy which is an often interrelated and sometimes indistinguishable thread – recorded in classical as well as modern Islamic heresiography had always been nuanced sociopolitically; some examples are Ibn Taymiah’s trials for his alleged anthropomorphic views [7], Ahmed Bin Hanbal’s condemnation for his views on nature of Quran [8], conviction of Mansoor Al-Hallaj for his claims of extreme mystical universalism, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid’s exile from Egypt to Netherlands in 1994, and Hashem Aghajari’s trial and subsequent conviction in Iran in 2003.

It can be ultimately contended that the contemporary debate of blasphemy (as seen in Pakistan these days) thrives upon postmodern sensibilities of the sacred which are theologically inaccurate as well as morally ambiguous. While successfully carrying the burden of far-right Islamist politics, these sensibilities also appeal to the popular, mostly apolitical and semi-religious mindset which is easily provoked by complexity and naturally adores a simple and perfect causality. However, what still remains to be shown is that this dangerously simplistic discourse is based upon strictly radical and authoritarian readings of the scripture (both Quran and Hadith).                                                                             __________________________________________

  1. The aim is not to instigate the expected emotional response but just to bring about the moral ambiguity of the popular religious discourse insinuating complete homogeneity. For specific remarks see various publications by Ibn Warraq and Patricia Crone, for instance.
  2. For first remark see Sacred Cows by Britain’s foremost feminist Fay Weldon; for second see On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle.
  3. For the description of actual event see Riaz Hassan, Expressions of Religiosity and Blasphemy in Modern Societies, Asian Journal of Social Science, 2007 – Springer.
  4. Two very important texts in this regard are A Brief History of Blasphemy by Richard Webster and Genealogies of Religion by Talal Asad.
  5. For details and discussion on related issues see Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion and his essay Reflections on Blasphemy and Secular Criticism in Religion: Beyond a Concept.
  6. Sherman Jackson, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid al Ghazali’s Faysal al Tafriqa.
  7. Sherman Jackson, Ibn Taymiyyah on Trial in Damascus, Journal of Semitic Studies, 1994.
  8. See for instance, Abu Zuhra’s work on Imam Ahmed Bin Hanbal’s life, work and fiqh.

Meet Nadir Khan, the Cobbler from Bajaur


Recently published in The Friday Times.

Nadir Khan, the cobbler from Bajaur who sits at the corner of my street, carries the kind of iconic baggage usually associated with cobblers from Sufi folklore and mystic literature. His character inspires me, his sensibilities vex me and his paradoxes keep me engaged with mine.

Being well aware of each second he lives, Nadir Khan spends a quarter of the year with his family in village, another quarter busy earning on a footpath in this metropolis, and another in the way of Allah, as he finds it to be. My self proclaimed wisdom and religious pragmatism is forced to zilch in front of his embodied response to time.

Perhaps responding to my amazement on his extraordinary business etiquette, a characteristic display of which is his initial customary refusal to accept money from his clientele, he shared today with me a Prophetic teaching that sins related to tongue will be one of the major charges against hell’s inhabitants. Standing in front of him on road side, I felt ashamed of all the Hadith corpus which I so proudly own but so miserably fail to follow in my everyday ethics.

shoe_cobblerNadir Khan believes that there exists a monolithic entity out somewhere, called Amreeka which he hates from the core of his heart and which, according to him, has dragged us into a war that has achieved nothing except killing innocent women and children. He claims knowledge of countless first hand experiences where such innocent lives were lost in US army drone attacks or Pakistan Army’s shelling during Bajaur operation. As he concluded relating one such incident where 8 woman and children were killed while filling water from a village reservoir, he thanked God that his family lives adjacent to an army installation and remained safe during the military offensive; a contradiction that he obviously failed to, or did not want to notice.

Anticipating his hesitation to indulge in things political, I avoided throwing a direct question regarding Talibanization and instead resorted to usual innuendos against extremist elements in society. Contrastingly in his typical straightforward manner, he invoked the scriptural clause of enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil. “But, Nadir Khan, God does not want us to terrorize people into His religion“, I responded while trying to be equally simplistic. Inadvertently ignoring my rejoinder, he hurriedly differentiated real and pretentious Talibs and contended that former were better for the poor classes of the society than the landlords and tribal chieftains; who are wicked and seasoned enough to get benefit out of confounded realities.

Continuing with a little emotional blabber, he shared how a Malik in his area – who is now helping Pakistan Army in exchange for money – used to throw hefty parties for Taliban when they were in control. Many, he believes, grew long beards and duped the world into believing that they are Talibans. Today in his muddled description of reality, I felt scattered echoes of intellectuals supporting political Islam as well as people like Tariq Ali, Imran Khan and Khalid Hosseini. Yet I felt unable to rebut his simplistic, direct and arguably myopic version of reality by using the same roadside dialectic employed by him.

Nadir Khan’s unflagging self belief and conviction regarding his socio-religious and political ken haunt me daily as I drive past his small roadside stall. Today as he reminded me to keep praying for Pakistan and Islam after our usual five minute schmooze, I wondered whether Nadir Khan can be taken as a representative sample of large part of conventionally wise and politically correct Pakistanis; we who cherish a simplistic Islamic ideal and an almost Utopian historical society.

I wondered whether Nadir Khan would believe it if I tell him that not so long ago, there were other Muslim societies, oceans away from his small shop, who successfully incorporated diversity and stood for primarily humanistic Islamic ideals. Societies, which produced jurists and philosophers, who wrote elegant expositions on such diverse topics as art and practice of love, fictional philosophy, expansion of universe and degeneration of sun. I wondered how Nadir Khan would react to the revelation that an idea is breathing its last as invisible young bombers enjoin good and forbid evil around our streets and we mend boots and bags in an almost surreal equanimity.

 

Is Shariah Possible (II): Origins of a Cosmopolitan Venture

A moral philosophy characteristically presupposes a sociology. For every moral philosophy offers explicitly or implicitly at least a partial conceptual analysis of the relationship of an agent to his or her reasons, motives, intentions and actions, and in so doing generally presupposes some claim that these concepts are embodied or at least can be in the real social world. [Alasdair Macintyre]

shariahAny study of Muslim civilization – with the purpose of exploring the roots of law – cannot remain unaffected by a certain kind of arbitrariness as far as specific time spans concerning various formative and post formative legal developments are concerned. However, it can be said with certainty that during the time of pious caliphate, there was no formal body of religious law that can be understood as binding on all Muslims. The community, being a direct recipient of revealed word of God, had no need to indulge in formal interpretation as the text (being characteristically a recitation-text as indicated by the word Quran itself and the first revelation Iqra’a) naturally exercised authority through immediate oral methods. A striking example of this spontaneous textual authority is Abu Bakr’s admonition to Umar at the time of Prophet’s demise which automatically brought the latter out from a state of denial.

This spontaneity, however, does not imply normative singularity (as we shall see later in the detailed examination of the Quran as a source of Sharia’h) and there were differences of opinions among companions regarding meaning of various verses.

Similarly, the concept Sunnah was not understood to be taken as a authoritative binding source in a proper and well defined framework. It was a kind of exemplary Prophetic practice – not yet formally situated in history – having a quasi-authoritative character; a disposition, which has to be necessarily distinguished from a relatively formal framework developed by later scholars especially Shafii.

It is difficult to identify the triggering point in history where Islamic tradition began to transform itself into a coherent, encompassing and self-assertive social order from a crudely authoritative moral philosophy . In this regard, one of the best studies of historical development of Islamic civilization has been carried out by Marshall Hodgson.

In his majestically detailed work, Hodgson goes on to explain the early  origins of a certain piously conscious class within Muslim societies supporting a faith-based egalitarianism in contrast to ruling absolutism of Marwani caliphate. A striking characteristic of this class – which was later specialized to be accepted as Ul’ema – was the pronouncement of this expectation that Islam has to have its own system of law, ethics, education and set of governing principles for public as well as private life.

With regards to Muslim civilization as a whole, the most profound cultural implication of this universalistic phenomenon was the emergence of a global social concern. In the words of Hodgson:

[…] the Muslims, unlike the Jews, did not regard their own community as a unique and (in principle) hereditary body selected out from a world left otherwise without direct divine guidance. The Muslim community was thought of as one among many divinely guided communities such as the Jewish or Christian, all (at their origin) equally blessed. Thus far, Islam took explicitly the form that various Christian and Jewish bodies had implicitly been assuming under the confessional empires […]. The difference between Islam and the other communities was that Islam was first to rule over and then to supersede all others. Islam was to bring the true and uncorrupted divine guidance to all mankind, creating a world-wide society in which the true revelation would be the everyday norm of all the nations. It must not guide an autonomous community like the Jewish; it must guide the practical policies of a cosmopolitan world.

This indeed was the aspiration which can be termed as the cornerstone of that sacred socio-moral vision we call Sharia’h or Islamic Canon. It is important to note that this sacred vision was as much informed by a will to act in opposition to the political reality of pre-Abbasid period as it was by the resolve to bring the whole ambit of individual life in accordance with divine will; or more specifically, to act as ordained by the Quran and Sunnah.