Among Dogmatic Slumberers (I): Resisting the Renaissance, the Bigger Picture

The “Muselmann” no longer was the master of his own body […] also the spiritual, intellectual and emotional activities decreased radically. [He] lost his memory and his ability to concentrate. His conscience was fixed on food only […] He only realized things directly in front of his eyes and only heard when word were shouted loudly. Without resistance, he was struck and hit. In the final phase, he even did not feel any hunger nor pain any more. The “Muselmann” perished because he could not go on. He was the symbol for mass-dying, a death of hunger, of being left alone, of killing the soul, a living corpse.[1]

Regardless of its original motivations and some possible phenomenological relationships with any observed MuslimMuselmann_hbe experiences in German or Polish thought in the early 20th century,  the above depiction of a specific kind of prisoner in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, at least has some startling metaphorical associations with generalized Muslim dispositions. Albeit in a figurative sense, this depiction provides us a literary canvas to formulate an old yet pressing problem, that is, why is it so hard for Muslim societies to come at terms with modernity; or to put differently, why is it so hard to resolve our baffling, and at times tragically mirthful paradoxes, so that the classically ascribed thought structures become consistent with the collective as well as individual experiences of reality?

To rephrase it from another angle, why being children of enlightenment, not only devouring fruits of modernity but holding tightly to them, we are resisting the intellectual renaissance?

What ultimately preoccupies us to generate such strong resistance to reform, giving us a peculiar resigned disposition, where we are desperately waiting for an impending and almost inevitable death in our proverbial Auschwitz? Why we are absolutely contended with our cherished intellectual and social infertilities and not only satisfied, but at times, proud of them too?

I have to accept from the onset that contrary to what might some of my liberal unorthodox interlocutors generally reckon, there is not a straightforward manner to approach this problem. Neither it is simply an issue of so-called regressive versus progressive sensibilities, nor it is merely a matter of authoritative or biased hermeneutics; rather, the locus of the problem lies in the domain of ideas, their history and mobility, how they relate with human experiences, get transformed by them, and if possible, evolve anew.

Just like in Auschwitz, its about our ability or, for that matter, inability to raise our legs and walk forward; to believe strongly that we are the masters of our own body, and that we can shape a new and original Weltanschauung which should correspond to our own experiences of reality, and which must also has the ability to extend outwards from our self and transform the world.

A large part of the problem lies in the inherited cosmologies which are based on a peculiar, and almost pathological, proclivity for an atomistic world-view. The opening lines of publisher’s prologue in a modern translation of Ibn Rajab’s prized classical work [2] on the realms of Islamic  knowledge and scholarship, provides us a showcase for phrasing this essential organic complexity. While challenging an alleged modernist trend in Muslim conception that beneficial knowledge – commendable in the eyes of Allah and His Prophet  –  includes all the expertise that is beneficial for the society such as commerce, engineering and medicine, it nourishes a perspective where, even though these other forms of knowledge are not despised per se, these are essentially pitted against the true knowledge which is solely for the pleasure of Allah Almighty and ultimate salvation.

Consequently, it is perhaps not unwarranted to claim that a Muslim universe is essentially atomistic, neatly compartmentalized in this-world and next-world. In my view, a world-view with such cosmologies at cornerstones, ameliorated with required scriptural pointers, is just a recipe for resigned psychologies.

But surrender in the domain of ideas is not the only manifestation of this atomism. There is more to it, related to exclusivity, by appealing to some imaginative authoritative structures. Argumentum ad verecundiam.

madrassaIn this respect, Muslim orthodoxy, with all its shades over the whole spectrum, unequivocally insists to keep religion as a private category much like their Christian counterparts in the middle-ages. Exclusivity is asserted in all its forms. Sect based seminaries and mosques where innumerable versions of the absolute truth are ceaselessly expounded from the pulpit (and now the pulpits over the social networks) by the so-called intellectual giants, and relayed immediately to the community in the streets from the parrots on their shoulders, concocted extracts from the literature employing medieval categories of thought and experience projected as epic literary marvels, or even the bland authoritative usage of scripture for all kinds of social exploitation are various forms of this exclusivity.

The argument appealing from the authority presumes a kind of academic expertise on the part of its proponent, and the orthodoxy is no exception. However, all the tools of exercising this expertise in public sphere, such as reason, criticism and discursive methods are not conformed to any universal academic norms but usually employed whimsically. In this respect, a paradigm is projected where everything in the domain of religion stands established and luminous, all elusiveness or ambiguity toned down as its handling logically belonged to that private domain.

Thus, well understood categories falling prey to these exclusivist  percepts tend to loose their original meanings and connote fresh ones. The category of reason, for instance, is transformed to mean the exercise of intellect in conformance with the well placed sectarian structures of thought, rather than an objective enterprise with its inherent limitations; and critique, rather than an all encompassing appraisal resulting from an analytical exercise, is merely boiled down to find a countering ‘evidence’ in the tradition supporting one’s preconceived contention.

Furthermore, the histories and sociologies are also forced to comply with this new paradigm. The texts, individuals and patterns of thought, which are considered non-conformists are dubbed as confusing, based on hearsay, blasphemous or simply nonsense. It isn’t just a coincidence that students in our religious seminaries are not introduced – from compassionate intellectual standpoints for making an effort to understand the other – to other diverse religious traditions as well as varying, and often conflicting, patterns within our own. As one of my orthodox friends puts it, its like ‘exposing young kids to the evils of pornography‘.

In a nutshell, the physiognomy of this proverbial Muselmann, desperately resisting change, is organically paradoxical. That is, being essentially a product of enlightenment he is trying to betray his perpetual experiences by ascribing to a world-view based on some imagined medieval sensibilities; not that these sensibilities were inherently stillborn – rather in many ways vibrant in their own time – but just because it is impossible to ascribe to a world-view beyond our experiences. If not theoretically impossible, it does at least belong to the domain of improbable, and happen to be in such quasi-fictitious company as time travel or transmigration of souls.

Echoing Malik Bennabi’s seminal diagnosis[3] of post Al-Mohad Muslim civilization (with Algeria as test-bed for his sociological studies), its about time, we must ask whether Muslim mind in predominant Muslim societies such as Pakistan, is utterly incapable of generalization?

Does Quran contends unity of self and its holistic experience in the macrocosm, or else an atomistic sensibility where knowledge and experiences are neatly placed in various compartments for this world and the hereafter?

Can orthodoxy continue to meaningfully insist for Muslim thought to be imaginative in some selected domains of ideas and regulate this imaginative exercise through some elusive religious authoritative structures as medieval Christianity (where they were not as elusive, at least)?

To put it more directly, is God simply indifferent as to how we make sense of our world or are there any possibilities of reconstructing a unified universe with God at its origin and Islam as the culmination of evolution of human thought?

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  1.  Muselmann definition, Johannes Kepler University of Linz.
  2. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, The Heirs of the Prophets, translated by Imam Zaid Shakir.
  3. Malik Bennabi, Islam in History and Society, edited and translated by Asma Rashid.

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.

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  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.