Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Modernism and Fundamentalism in Islam. Part 6

This continues what I started in Modernism and Fundamentalism in Islam. Part 1. The previous installment was Part 5.

I am reading Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam. A Reader, edited by Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof, and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2002. All citations refer to that book, unless otherwise stated.

Now I begin reading "Part Two: Islamic Fundamentalism". It begins with section "I. Jurisprudence, Bases of Law, and Rational Sciences".

The first of the two articles in this section was written by Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), and is translated tellingly as "Islam as the Foundation of Knowledge". Qutb is clearly an Islamist of the fundamentalist type, as his article shows:

What Islam calls Divine Law, covers the entire scheme that God has devised for regulating human life. It includes within its sphere the regulation of thoughts and views, fundamentals of statecraft, principles of ethics and culture, laws of transactions, and regulations of knowledge and the arts. The Divine code of law circumscribes every angle of human thought and opinion. (p. 198.)

I think it's appropriate to call this view absolute totalitarianism. Qutb and his brethren would have all Muslims bow in absolute servitude to God's will as interpreted by the fundamentalists. This would, in practise, make the fundamentalist leaders the absolute and totalitarian rulers of Muslims, in the name of God, of course. To make sure no Muslim would stray from the path of "true religion", Qutb does what cult leaders usually do, i.e. restricts inquiry to "acceptable" sources:

A Muslim has not the authority to seek guidance and light from any other source and well-head except the Divine one in any matter that pertainst to faith, the general concept of life, rituals, morals and dealings, values and standards, politics, and assemply, principles of economics, or the explanation of human history. (p. 199.)

According to Qutb, a Muslim is not allowed to consult non-Muslims (actually, non-fundamentalist Muslims, I'm sure) about any of those things. It is acceptable in some other things, with limitations, of course:

[A] Muslim is allowed to imbide abstract learnings from all the Muslims and non-Muslims alike, for example, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Astronomy, Medicine, Industry, Agriculture, Administration (to the extent of technical aspects only), Technology, Arts of warfare (from their technical aspect only), and other like learnings, arts, and technology. (p. 199 - 200.)

The main reason why he allows the consultation of non-Muslims in these areas is obviously the fact that Muslims don't have (did not have at the time of his writing at least) enough knowledge of these things themselves, yet such knowledge is required to govern a society. He also makes it clear that he is interested in such things only for their "profitable results", not merely for the ske of knowledge, for example.

The most significant limitation to the study of any subject is that it must not have anything to do with anything covered by Islam, as interpreted by Qutb -- which does cover a lot, as seen above. Qutb of course has to believe that things like the natural sciences, social sciences, history or philosophy "do not pertain to matters related to Muslims concepts about life and the universe or discuss man's responsibility and the nature of man's relations with the universe and his relations with the Creator of life. [...] They are also not connected with morals and manners, customs and traditions [...]" (p. 200). This is certainly not very plausible: even the natural sciences now have much to say about things like morality, while customs and traditions, as well as beliefs can be critically evaluated in the light of social sciences and history. It follows that whenever and wherever science intrudes on religious ground, the devout (fundamentalist) Muslim must ignore science and stick to Islamic dogma. The more advances are made by the rational approach, the clearer the contradiction between that and the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam becomes. The following quote makes this pretty obvious:

But as regards reason of human struggle, whether it is individual or collective in form -- and this sturggle is directly connected with human self and concepts of human history -- similarly as regards the reason for the beginning of the universe, inception of life and man's own beginning and its interpretation, since all these matters pertain to Metaphysics (and are not related to Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, and Medicine) they have as such the same position as the principles and regulations, laws and canons organizing the human life and human efforts. They are indirectly related to faith and concept [sic]. It is, therefore, not permissible for a Muslim to acquire these learnings from anyone else except a Muslim; rather it should be acquired from only such a Muslim in whose religion and righteousness he may have full confidence. He should have the thorough conviction that he seeks guidance from God alone in all these matters. (p. 200.)

Of course, God does not talk to people, so one is left with "holy" (or rather, holey) texts, and those who claim to have the True interpretation of those texts. This attitude about the limits of human abilities is truly detrimental to honest truth-seeking, which should never be limited by taboos and dogma. There is not even hope of progress if one denies out of hand the possibility that man could progress. Qutb's negative and pessimistic (and anti-humanistic) attitude is certainly not limited to the natural sciences: he believes that philosophy, history, and the social sciences have been influenced by non-Islamic "beliefs and fetishes" in such a way that they have caused these fields to be "at loggerheads with religion in their fundamental principles, and nurse an explicit or implicit grudge against the concept of religion ordinarily and Islamic concept particularly" (p. 201). It is unthinkable, of course, that they might instead have had valid reasons behind their criticisms of religion in general and Islam in particular. Unthinkable, because the devout Muslim must deny such possibilities as a requirement of faith, in order to properly be a Muslim, as shown above.

After limiting all acceptable rational activity to the pursuit of profit (for Muslim society, I presume), as long as it in no way contradicts religious dogma, Qutb shows his anti-Jewish paranoia:

But this concept of culture [as common human heritage] is, in fact, one of the many contrivances of world Zionism whose purpose is to demolish all limits and bounds on top of which is the list of the bindings and limitations of religion -- so that the position of Jewry may easily pervade within the body of the enrire world when it has become lethargic, intoxicated and half-alive, and the Jews should have full liberty to pursue their diabolic activities in the world. Topping the list among these activities are their dealings in usury and moneylending, whose purpose is to channel the hard earning got out of the sweat and blood of the entire mankind into Jewish institutions rund on the basis of usury and interest. (p. 201 - 202.)

I fear this kind of ridiculous propaganda is still common among Muslims. It is very much the same as what Christians used to say about Jews over the centuries -- leading to the horrible suffering of the Jews in many cases, of which the Holocaust is only the most recent. It does not matter how stupid and baseless the accusations are when a people is being demonized. Because of certain passages in the Quran, the Jews are an easy target. Add to it the notorious hoax known as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", and you have Qutb's dangerous beliefs about the Jews.

Quoting a passage of the Quran and another of the hadith, Qutb argues why a Muslim should only trust Muslims when seeking knowledge:

When God [...] had explicitly and categorically stated this hazardous determination of the Jews and the Christians about the Muslims, it would be a peak of foolishness and short-sightedness to nurse this good-will even for a moment that the discussions made by them about Islamic faith or Islamic history or proposals offered about the system of Muslim society or Muslim politics or Muslim economics could be based on any good intention, or they have Muslim's wellbeing in view, or in fact they are sincerely in search of guidance and light. Those wro entertain this good opinion about them after the clear declaration and categorical verdict of God, their reason and intellect are worth lamenting. (p. 204.)

The strong distinction between ingroup (true believers) and the outgroup (non-Muslims, especially Jews) is usually a bad sign. It is used to create cohesion within one's group by creating mistrust and even fear of the outsiders. The group's leaders obviously benefit from this, as the underlings are less likely to think for themselves, seek more objective views, or even acquaint themselves with the views of outsiders.

Qutb also ridiculously claims that "Europe's empirical sciences are the product of the Islamic period", but since little in the way of history is offered, I will ignore the claim, and move on to the next article.

Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi (1903-79) is the source of the latter half of this section, called "Fallacy of Rationalism". The rationalism under attack here is "Western rationalism", the idea that humans could use their own reasoning to decide what to do, even which religious beliefs to uphold.

When our new generation completed their studies in western-oriented educational institutions they came out fully trained and groomed in the western way of thinking and with their minds totally changed. Their hears were no doubt Muslim, but their minds had turned secular. (p. 209.)

The problem with this kind of rationalism is that it's not really rational, according to Maududi:

Speaking on Islam, one is either a Muslim or a nin-Muslim. If he speaks as a Muslim, may he be orthodox, a liberal thinker, or a reformer, whatever be the case, he is expected to talk within the orbit of Islam with the Quran as the final authority and within the fundamentals of religion and the laws of Shari'ah as enunciated in the holy Quran. Whoever does not believe in the holy Quran as the final authority, and considers its injunctions as open to discussion, automatically goes out of the pale of Islam and thus loses every right to speak as a Muslim. [...] But, speaking as a non-Muslim, he will have no right to pose himself as a Muslim and try to explain to the Muslims the meanings of Islam and the ways and means to promote Islam. (p. 210.)

Maududi defines Muslims as those who believe the basic tenets of Islamic fundamentalism. The problem, from the point of view of my project here, is that it makes too much sense. It is much easier to deny the authority of the Bible in Christianity, than it is to deny the authority of the Quran in Islam. It's easier with the Shari'ah, as seen in the previous articles by the Modernist Muslims. But the Quran is a tougher nut. It would require Quranic exegetics, and I don't know if that would help either. If it can be shown that the Quranic texts were plausibly handed down by Muhammed, then the non-fundamentalist has to justify his way of reading and use of the Quran; that he doesn't take it as the infallible, perfect word of God for all times.

If you do not see eye to eye with the Divine book, you are free to differ but only after denouncing faith in Islam. Whoever feels dissatisfied with the teachings and injunctions of a religion and soubts its veracity, fails to understand its logic and needs, and considers its views and concepts objectionable, has only two options. Either he may clearly denounce and disown it and then criticize its tenets and teachings as bitterly as he likes or, if he does not want to say good-bye to his religion in spite of his doubts and apprehensions, he must avoid projection of his disagreement. (p. 211.)

This kind of dichotomous, black and white, view is appealing in its simplicity, of course. It hardly makes sense to speak of a holy book if one doesn't believe the contents of the book to be of divine origin. One can dilute the divinity of the words, reducing the status of the book, for example by appealing to the human fallibility of the medium (prophet) used in putting the words in writing. Or one could find reason to doubt the early phase of the tradition: perhaps there were miscommunications at some point? But where to draw the line? How far can one go in this and still consider the text holy in any meaningful sense?

Still, the dichotomy between fundamentalists, and non-fundamentalists, is dangerous. The certainty that one's interpretation of religion is the only true interpretation, coupled with clear hostility towards those who disagree and hold different interpretations to be true, is a cause for worry. "The West" especially is something Fundametalists Islamists seem to despise pretty generally. Maududi certainly doesn't seem to have a very good opinion of it:

[A] critical study of western civilization shows, beyond doubt, that it is based on either rationalism nor naturalism. On the contrary, its entire structure stands on feelings, lust, and urges. The western renaissance was nothing but a revolt against reason and nature. Discarding logic and reason, it turned toward whims and feelings and material urges. It relied on moods instead of reason, rejected rational guidance, logical reasoning, and innate intuition, and made perceptible material results its real criterion. Rejecting nature's guidance, it preferred to be guided by desires and urges, regarded everything as baseless that cannot be measured and weighed, condemned everything as negligible and worthless that did not produce any perceptible material gain. (p. 215.)

Since no argument for all this is provided by the author, I will not be bothered to refute it. I will just note that Maududi seems to think that ever since the renaissance, western culture has been corrupted and irrational, being controlled by feelings, lust, and urges. I can only assume that this has something to do with the rise of modern empirical science, and the secularization of Europe (and academic culture in general). I suppose he thought it better when Christianity ruled the West. I think his views are ahistorical, and in any case too vaguely expressed (and without arguments and evidence) to warrant further comment. It is unfortunate that such hostility toward whole cultures exists, but other Muslims can disagree with him, as there is nothing in Islam that would require such an attitude. It is thus an obstacle among the fundamentalists that can be overcome.

The worst thing about religiosity, in my opinion, is the dogmatic nature of religious beliefs. Maududi provides good examples of dogmatic thinking, when he argues why it is necessary for a Muslim to submit to the authority of religion (or, as the case will actually be, although he of course fails to say it, religious authorities). He mistakenly implies that a person who practises law (or perhaps he means only a person who is a judge at a court of law) will not criticize the legal system within which he works. Even worse, he thinks that a person within a school of thought would not criticize the fundamentals of that school. (p. 210.)

Perhaps the translation here is inadequate. Perhaps he means more than criticize, for the claim does make sense if we replace "criticize" with "discard": a person who has discarded the fundamentals of a school of thought is no longer a proponent of that school of thought. But then the analogy with moderate and liberal Modernist Muslims might fail. They don't necessarily discard any "fundamentals" of Islam, although what they consider those fundamentals to be might differ from what the Fundamentalists think. This is a question of interpretation of religion.

For Maududi, Islam is clearly something similar to a country's government, and even more chillingly, an army:

No government can stay even for a moment if every person starts demanding rational justification for its orders and refuses to submit to any order without getting its satisfactory justification. No army can be called an army if every soldier starts seeking the reason for his commander's orders and demanding his satisfaction before compliance.

Anybody who joins a system or organization does so only when he accepts and believes in the authority of that system as supreme authority, and as loing as he is a part of that system, he is duty bound to obey its supreme authority, may he be convinced and satisfied with any order or not(p. 217.)

This kind of authoritarian "thinking" is not what democracies are about. Speaking of religious believers as unthinking, uncritical soldiers who simply follow orders is especially telling, and shows why Maududi's brand of Islam is so compatible with terrorism.

Unconditional faith is the first and foremost requirement of Islam. It calls people to believe in Allah and His Prophet first, instead of issuing injunctions. (p. 218.)

In order to make Islam compatible with the global human society, non-fundamentalist Muslims must change this. As long as one follows Maududi's thinking this far, it becomes impossible for one's religion to progress. Once one submits to this cult, and accepts that from that point onward the dogma of the cult cannot be criticized, but simply obeyed, one has made also progress impossible. Closedmindedness like this will guarantee the ridicule of future generations, while the "true believers" will remain medieval in their thinking. I hope reformers will keep coming, and that they will have minds sharp and open enough to recognize the mind-numbing propaganda of the likes of Maududi, and to discard it, in favour of more intellectually friendly interpretations of their religion.

Continue to Part 7.

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