Raza Habib Raja
One of the biggest enemies of the religion of Islam is its followers as it is their behavior and ways of engagement with the rest of the world which shapes its outward image. Today whether we admit it or not, the fact is that Islam’s name has become intertwined with terrorism, misogyny and intolerance towards the followers of other religions.
And this image, of course has a spillover effect and consequently the world does not feel the same level of empathy when a natural catastrophe strikes in a Muslim area or even if Muslims are prosecuted, the way it does for the rest of the humanity. Worst still, the racial crimes against Muslims or even those who are perceived to be Muslims are on the rise. Religious minorities like Sikhs are today being attacked for their proximity in appearance with Muslims. Moreover, whenever any instance of terrorism occurs the first perception is always that a Muslim is involved. I remember when shootings in Norway took place, the first reports falsely claimed that the killer was a Muslim and frankly those sounded completely believable as even my first instinctive hunch was that it was a Muslim. Moreover, Islam’s name is constantly being associated with mistreatment of women all over the world.
Muslims by and large, are themselves to blame for that. It is the way they interpret and follow their religion which has led to this state of affairs. Although it has become common among some critics to keep on blaming Islam itself but in my opinion a religion is nothing but an ideology which assumes its material shape through its followers. Whether religion is “divine” or not, it affects the society and culture through the way it is believed and followed.
It is not Islam but what the majority believes about Islam which really matters. Now a huge majority is actually moderate but at the same time completely passive when it comes to matters of religion. The religious lobby despite being electorally weak has been able to wield tremendous influence and influence is dominant through the state and its laws almost in all the Islamic countries.
But state is just one part of the whole issue, culture of Islamic countries also places a strong emphasis on religion. Although it can be argued that substantial cultural differences exist between various Islamic countries (after all you cannot compare Bangladesh with Yemen or Iran) but the fact is that there is some commonness which religion lends to all the Muslim countries and enables them to be called Islamic countries despite at times substantial ethno linguistic differences.
In all the Muslim societies, the culture places a very strong reverence of religion and creates a general atmosphere where anything religious is more or less unquestionable. Even if someone has to question it, he/she has to question from “inside the religion”. For example, the controversial blasphemy law is almost never questioned for being against the modern day human ideals but being “against the spirit of Islam”. And that perhaps is the only way which is available and I fully concur.
The culture, laws and the general modus operandi of the state in Islamic countries have created a nurturing ground for a bigoted mentality which revers religion a lot and led to development of an inherently intolerant attitude towards religious minorities. Of course the environment cultivated by this overemphasis of religion does not have uniform effect on all the individuals but it does affect them in varying degrees in the aforementioned ways. Plus the extreme reverence of religion means that any religious inspired law, once it is enacted, is almost impossible to repeal.
No matter how we try to project a case for secularism the fact remains that Muslims all over the world want religion to be the part of their lives and even laws. While separation of state and religion is a very noble idea but frankly it will remain a farfetched dream. What is more realistic is that we have a different look at religion and try to understand things in a contextual manner. The central idea is reinterpretation to bring Islamic ideas in conformity with modern times. Even in the West, secularism evolved through liberal discourse on religion.
Historically Islam has been interpreted as“complete” and suitable for all times and this makes any independent discussion on it extremely difficult with rousing the violent passions. Moreover,literalism dominates the interpretation where by the holy text is interpreted literally and no attempt is made to understand the context. Allegorical interpretation is virtually nonexistent which in turn makes interpretation time bound in 7th century and suited for those circumstances. This practice of literal interpretation has actually proven detrimental to Muslims as it has become an effective propaganda weapon in the hands of critics of Islam. Whenever Muslims try to argue that Islam is a religion of peace, the opponents would actually quote verses about Jihad and point to the fact that Islamic religious scholars interpret these as literally. Literalism thus becomes an extremely effective tool for the opponents and they exploit it well.
Now although various schools of Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) exist but while they may differ with each other ( the difference underlines the fact that Islam does not have a monolithic version), almost all of them are conservative with respect today’s time. Now this is extremely important for both Muslims as well as critics of Islam to understand that any religion or for that matter any idea is seldom abstract. It is a by product of particular times and circumstances and tries to offer solution which are appropriate for them.
Islam did not come into a vacuum. It came in 7th century and while some of its solutions are general and can be extended to even today’s problems, but by and large they try to address problems which a tribal society of those times was facing. What seems extremely harsh today was acceptable for those times and was an improvement on previous times.
Yes many claim that even by those standards and compared to some of the other religions some of the solutions to society’s ill are particularly harsh but at the same time those were widely accepted and embraced. Spread of Islam was not merely through sword. I have heard a lot about “forcible” conversions but you can not maintain the zeal and enthusiasm which Muslims have for their religion
over centuries if their ancestors had been merely forced. In fact if that had been the case the “forced” coverts would have ensured to instill hatred in their children.
It is this incrementally progressive spirit which needs to be fully understood and we need to realize that argument for reform actually comes from within Islam not from outside it. In its essence, Islam is progressive and therefore we have to maintain its progressive spirit. Any religion, law or idea is eternal if it has the inherent flexibility otherwise it becomes time trapped. In its spirit Islam is a progressive religion and has a reformist attitude. It is that spirit which needs to be understood rather
than focusing on scripture. The followers by interpreting literally are themselves weakening the claim that Islam is divine and also “forever”.