Thursday, 19 May 2016

Choosing Between Divergent Schools

Invitation to God or to a Sect?
It is often asked how can we decide about competing claims of authenticity or true Islam presented in mosques, in schools, in media, in books on religion? One strategy is frank dialogue amongst the best representatives of different positions so that lay people or anyone with common sense could get some idea. However this doesn’t happen in practice because sectarian people are more interested in power than truth, in dictating than listening, in debating than discussing, in winning people to their camp than to God. And they don’t know how to sort out or articulate, politely, their disagreements. We, therefore, try another strategy and that is attempt to go to the deepest depths possible in our search and properly formulate issues that divide us. So we keep first things first and talk about the First Principles and approach it in ontological and existential terms that constitute, by consensus amongst all those who care to think and care about experiencing/discovering truth, the measures with which we are, as humans, compelled to measure every truth claim.
      What is orthodoxy or correct doctrine? We all agree that what has been received from the Heavens or God and His Prophet and is preserved in Tradition. Now the agreement ends here and the moment we seek to express this Tradition in terms of later doctrinal or scholastic or ideological developments that emerged within Muslim community, we might be guilty of some exclusion or privileging a particular way of understanding  or missing a nuance or a dissident view of a great authority that has not even been recorded. After granting these qualifying points, we need to understand what is offered as statement of correct belief in its most universal or widest and deepest (ontological) terms. And here is a danger of reducing purely intellectual metaphysical/ontological content to its theological equivalent which necessarily limits or distorts.  However, as humans with emotions and individuality we are bound to create theologies or schools and every great mujtahid is a school of his own though Truth in absolute terms may elude all. Take the key terms God/Unity, Messenger, After life and express all of them in terms that don’t sacrifice interests of truth for the sake of individual exigencies or emotional requirements of believers and we arrive at it the deepest or most correct statement of doctrine. This follows from the very definition of the terms metaphysics, theology and religion and isn’t imported from one’s liking or disliking or any other assumption. The way mathematics expresses the most universal content of say physics because of its very structure or method of abstracting from the contingent elements, metaphysics expresses that of religion or theology. And we do have very precise statement of doctrines but it is hard to state it in terms that those not touched by faith to the very marrow or who have failed to orient their lives for cultivating virtues will understand. Religion doesn’t require mere rational comprehension or assent on our part to abstractions or so-called truth statements but assimilation or penetration of that Truth that transforms us for good. Orthodoxy requires transformation to really mean anything in practice. And it here – in ethical perfection, in spiritual excellence – that we test the contesting claims of being closer to truth. This is the court that has been practically accepted by all communities across cultures. Deep down we all bear witness to the truth lived – in the lives of saints and sages –  instead of verbalized truth sold in books or media houses. The argument that converts or wins our hearts and minds ultimately is encounter with morally and spiritually superior life – the life of the Prophet, of great Aslaaf, of saints and sages. And we know how religions have spread best by examples of lived life and not intellectual arguments for contested belief statements.  When Muslims talk about returning to the pious ancestors or first three generations what is really the point is that the Prophet (SAW) transforms by presence a community and the community lives the truth – here is to be appreciated privileging of the Sunna (established transmitted practice) over individual reports (Akhbar-i- Ahad) for all schools of Islamic thought. Our salvation can’t be dependent on historical exigencies and contested historicity of consensus on issues that don’t touch the core of faith and practice of virtues but ultimately, as Ibn Taymiyyah pointed out, it is linked to a sovereign principle within the soul of a person – thenomous reason, fitarh – that intuitively accesses the true faith. How come the Quran is so categorical that truth and falsehood have been clearly distinguished and what is addressed is our freedom to choose rather than any consent to a verdict arrived through elaborate procedure in the court of history implicated in power relations.
      Why heed lesser minds as bigger the man harder it is to classify in any one school? Higher the pitch of voice against rival school, narrower is the mind. There is simple reason for this. Greater the mind and heart, greater catholicity and reconciliation of opposites in esotericism and place for divergent viewpoints in ultimate nondulaity. Neither is Ibn Taymiyah against many important figures and practices in Sufism denounced by many modern Salafis, nor is Ibn Arabi against Salafi defense of the letter of scripture and respect for law, nor is Ghazzali against philosophers (seeing how dependent he is on Ibn Sina’s epistemology, fatwa of kufr notwithstanding) nor philosophers like Ibn Rushd against jurists as guardians of Sha’ria nor can Shah Waliullah and Iqbal be fully appropriated for either neo-Salafi or Berelvi cause.
      We might ground dialogue between rival fiqh schools and their Ahle Hadees critics in Mercy centric ontology of Islam as emphasized in Ibn Arabi (lest we forget  how recent is Ahle Hadees antagonism to him as he received guarded if not unqualified admiration from major Ahle Hadees scholars of the Indian subcontinent) who argues why it should not be problematic (excepting certain issues in which the State requires uniform intervention and some homogeneity ) to exercise  taflik or freely choose some  properly substantiated opinions from different legal schools and mujtahids. (In fact in some situations it has always been resorted to and the most recent example is Hanafi fatwa on disappeared husband adopted from Malikees). The argument that this constitutes nafs parasti (following desiring self) is contested by Ibn Arabi pointing out that the ease we seek is legitimized or grounded in God’s choosing Mercy over rigour for Himself. Thus as many schools/mujtahids to choose from, the better. More schools mean richness of tradition. We only need to see that we don’t allow lesser minds to be captains who pick fights or some problematic elements rather than the best from others. And remember it is God who has asked us to wait to resolve some key differences  in the otherworld. This might mean in the higher world of Spirit or esotericism. Anyway, let us begin by special feasts for representatives of rival sects. A good lunch and shared jokes laughter will help resolve some differences.
      When we encounter divergent interpretations with immense political consequences how do we choose? Consistent with Mercy centric ontology of Islam there is a golden rule stated in by Augustine  that suggests that we chose that interpretation which leads to greater love as this is required by the first two commandments that state Love God and love thy neighbour.
      Those who become gold needn’t proclaim it; they shine and in their radiance lesser mortals find a way. These are the saints and sages and we know after prophets they continue their inheritance and an aalim in Islam isn’t merely an exoteric authority or jurist but  ideally a sage, an arrif who doesn’t merely know about God but knows God and lives that vision in higher ethical and spiritual life. All we need to contest is absolutization of any one school as the Truth and accordingly its monopoly on salvation. It is not party manifestos or takfeeri ideologies or imperialistic theologies or personality cults or utopian fantasies  but iman, wisdom (hikmah) and tazkiyyah that save.

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