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.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Immunizing Against Sectarianism

Historically it is the impact of poets, mystics and philosophers in Muslim cultures that has provided an antidote to sectarianism.
Given the pandemic of sectarianism, how do we immunize ourselves against the deadly flu? Especially since we refuse the  imposed secularization as vaccination drive that was adopted by the West; that generates serious allergic response and throws away the baby of religion with the bathwater of sectarianism. Historically it is the impact of poets, mystics and philosophers  in Muslim cultures that has provided an antidote to sectarianism sponsored by Mullacracy and sectarian politicians. Let us see how deep rooted sectarian consciousness is in history.
      For various reasons we have had divergent sectarian interpretations that have been fighting one another and thanks to changing political equations, fortunes of certain sects would change.  Earliest civil wars in Islam were fought in the name of sectarianism though we have some reasons to exonerate major actors in them from base motives and can point out, as an explanation, divergence in human perceptions of the truth besides the fateful subjectivity and unresolved contradictions inherited from the past . Shia vs. Sunni vs. Ibadi conflict needs no mentioning. We have rival schools of Ashab-i-Raiy (People of the Opinion) ironically also now classified with conformists or muqallids, and Ahl-e-Hadees now getting increasingly polarized. Initially there was grudging acceptance, at least de facto, of each other. We see fierce battles in history that have only been recently exacerbated between various legalistic and theological schools. Deadly tactics of Qaramitians and counter-tactics from politically dominant Sunnis are also well known. Intolerance expressed in persecution of many scientists, philosophers, theologians and Sufis has also been our legacy that needs to be acknowledged and revisited in the age of pluralism. Even philosophers who are expected to be least likely to endorse any kind of intolerance have not been able to shun State’s or ideology’s compulsions and we find a philosopher like Ghazzali (or more appropriately the theologian in him) despite being the author of a great work on dealing with religious differences issued a fatwa of takfeer for rival philosophers like Ibn Sina. Islam’s greatest sons from Ibn Arabi to Ibn Sina to Ibn Taymiyyah to Iqbal have been subject of takfeeri campaigns. All the legalistic (because conformist or muqallid) and Sufi schools have been thus rejected by some authority from rival school. Whole disciplines of Kalam, Falsafa and some traditional sciences such as astrology have been rejected as kufr by certain ulama. Even poets were not spared. Hafiz was initially refused a burial on Islamic pattern until it was agreed that a fal from his Diwan will decide. Today, we have Berelivees pitched against Deobandis and Salafis and vice versa. Hardly any name from any school one can name – from Sanaullah Amritsari to Qasim Nanatovi to Ahmed Reza Khan Berelvi to Syed Moududi to Ghamidi – who has escaped fatwa of kufr from some respected scholar of rival school. Recently we know how severe differences between religious ideologies/schools ended up in conflicting loyalties in political conflicts in Egypt and Syria. Kashmir problem itself (as a legacy of partition) and its appropriation by its top leadership have something to do with particular interpretation of Islam vs. religious other or of relationship between religion and nationalism. It is no longer possible for getting an Imam for one’s mosque without checking his affiliations with particular school/ideology. For those who want to argue that, today, there is healthy divergence (in theory, at certain point in history, in parts, amongst some groups like five major fiqhi schools one might agree) there is a standing refutation in an extremely important document prepared by Justice Munir Commission in Pakistan after extensive work, review of literature and interview of representatives of various religious groups. (Its pdf can be freely downloaded and check pages 201-235.) Munir Commission asked the heads of all Islamic schools of thought, the definition of a Muslim and no two ulema agreed but all agreed regarding some other sects being non-Muslim.
      However, we needn’t despair. We have, traditionally inherited, a great legacy of consolidation and reconciliation of divergent positions. We have, in the very idea of Sunnism, a principle that has been able to accommodate as diverse positions as those of Al-Khashaf and Al-Razi, Ibn Arabi and Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Rushd and Ghazzali, Faizi and Sirhindi, authors of Majma-al-Bahrain and Fatawa-i-Alamgeri– in fact scores of theological, legalistic, philosophical, mystical and other schools. The significance and underlying hermeneutical assumptions underlying Sunni Orthodoxy is missed by such scholars as Rashid Shaz in his otherwise, in many respects, insightful Idraki Zawali Ummat. However Shia position is no less fruitful when it comes to exploring resources for placing different sectarian views in perspective. This is achievable by attention by openness to philosophy and such hermeneutical strategies as tawil  which are universalizing ideas. We have thus Mulla Sadra and S. H. Nasr as great minds from Shia background who engage not only with Sunni thinkers without any hiccups but have developed and applied philosophical ideas and  perspectives that can be used for reconciling not only various positions within Islam including between Shia and Sunni approaches or Sufi and philosophical approaches or  some other seemingly disparate schools. We have, on a more philosophical front, such great scholars as Corbin who have developed resources for marrying faith and philosophy, Persian and Islamic philosophies, Western philosophers like Heidegger and Sufi thinkers and of course Shia and Sunni thinkers. In our tradition there have been many great minds about whom accusations of being Shia or Sunni or crypto-shia and crypto-sunni  have  been made implying that this very division is transcended or is flawed when characterizing bigger minds. Ultimately we need to appreciate that both Shia and Sunni approaches have patronized genius poets and philosophers and mystics who have all the resources we need for tackling sectarianism and resisting the tags Shia or Sunni. A few  examples from the twentieth century we may note. Shariati from the Shia background  paying the best tribute to Iqbal from Sunni background saying he is Ali-like (Ali-guna). Iqbal in turn acknowledged some Shia element  in him (“Hae ouki tabeeyet main tasihiyu bi zara sa.."). We have Ayatullah Khomeni writing a commentary on Fusoos-al-Hikm, the work of the greatest Sunni Shaykh. We have Nasr the perennialist writing one of the best books on Islam (Ideas and Realities of Islam) and editing a Quran commentary (Study Quran) that hardly gives any indication of his Shia background. Higher the pitch of voice against rival school, narrower is the mind. Islam’s greatest minds including  philosophers, Sufis and poets have deconstructed exoteric theological understanding of such a basic category as kufr and Islam (name any great poet from Hafiz to Bedil to Ghalib to Iqbal and see), not to speak of Shia and Sunni or Ahnaf and Ahle Hadees.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Diagnosing Viruses of Sectarianism

 He misreads history, religions, philosophies, cultures and almost everything current.
Often we get an impression that God is like a constituency seat for which different sects keep fighting through all democratic and non-democratic means. It needs numbers and therefore aggressive campaigns to harness the support of voters (potential converts). Pulpit is used as space for election campaign. And unfortunately there are no last dates when campaign ends. The questions that are forced on us through ceaseless campaigns:  To which sect do we offer our vote? And whether NOTA might be  a better choice for one who is really in search of God? Aren’t the masses generally used or betrayed and thus their welfare become a casualty in any election campaign in this part of the world? Isn’t it the case the soul’s welfare or God is casualty in this campaign for God? Before we argue how pervasive is the AIDS of sectarianism that is destroying the immune system of Muslim community and why choose NOTA against sectarian people in future columns, we need to understand clearly who is a sectarian, in the sense that he doesn’t merely have genuine or expected ikhtilaf (divergence) on certain issues but is involved in active intolerant firqa bandi (sectarianism).

Who is a Sectarian?
In the light of God/Truth/Deen centred Tradition a sectarian is one who  subscribes to anyone of the following points:

  • His/her theologico-legal/ideological school/interpretation of Islam is the standard one and the rest are more or less deviations that are disastrous here and hereafter. 
  • Religion is an ideology. 
  • Religion is something given  and not discovered as a process and one has only to take it or implement it disregarding the facts that  contested views of history, selective interpretations or readings of sources and somewhat ad hoc construction of detail or even some principles of canon besides power games all mediate its reception.
  • Islam has been best interpreted by certain community in a unanimous manner in all its important detail and once for all sealing off this interpretative endeavour and leaving the only option for later generations to mechanically copy it. This interpretation is, in practice,  monolithic and involves no plurality of understandings  and can become hegemonic or used to exclude or suppress  alternative views on many significant points from the earliest times. He fights for certain interpretation of Islam rather than Islam and is anxious to add something more to Hazrat Salman Farsi’s statement that he is Salman ibn Islam. 
  • One can preach truth of his ideology or sect or interpretation forgetting that truth as an object of sale or fighting or point scoring isn’t a target as God isn’t a problem but a mystery and belief/faith not a propositional statement but an attitude.  
  • One can disregard the only basis of universality of religion – its metaphysical/esotericist exegesis. One can absolutize certain view of history and push for rigid canonization of certain sources. 
  • Salvation can be, in absolute terms, linked to anything less universal than God/Truth accessed through use of intelligence – aqli saleem – and this may include such things as cultivation of certain ecstatic or ideological states, exclusively literalist reading of scripture, finality of historical theological or legal schools and thus certain standard creedal and legalistic formulations, certain contested  appropriation or  reading of historical personalities etc.
Tests for Diagnosing Sectarian Virus
There are tests for diagnosing the virus of sectarianism which include, among others:
  • He has, generally speaking, little mastery of classics of Islamic tradition. He might know Aqeedah Tahawiyyah or Wastiyyah or medieval fiqh texts but is little informed about a host of sciences that were once part of/or closely linked with Madarassh curriculum. 
  • Even if he knows about his tradition, he knows little about the Tradition that grounds all religious traditions because he employs theological-legalistic lenses and the sky of Truth has to be known through metaphysics.
  • He misreads history, religions, philosophies, cultures and almost everything current or modern because he doesn’t know his times – whose soul is expressed in great literary, artistic and philosophical works – and this disqualifies him from being a dayie who can deliver Friday sermons  free from sectarianism. 
  • He knows no classical language with all the richness of its literary heritage. He has often great difficulties with the language that majority of mankind or international community understands today – English. 
  • He doesn’t argue his case in cool soft voice (“with wisdom and beautiful preaching”) but issues fatwas and might silence you with every means he can command.
  • “His heaven is of a size of a small room in which only a few persons of his liking  can be accommodated” as Dr G. Q . Lone once remarked.
  • He has little sense of humour, hardly any taste for literature.
  • He asserts his religion is the best rather than the religion of submission to Supraformal Truth that is not his but Heaven’s. The implied test of being the best in personal ethic the Prophet (SAW) promulgated he ignores.
  • He despises symbolism and is suspicious of philosophy that alone makes intelligible the claims of religion. He privileges belief over faith. He doesn’t tolerate free inquiry or dialogue with other schools on equal terms. He is, virtually, sure about his place in heaven and other’s place in hell. He is neither informed about histories nor cultures in all their bewildering diversity. (Ask him if he has read any multivolume encyclopaedic histories of the world and how much he knows about Durants, Toynbees and Hobsbawms, not to speak of philosophers of history from Ibn Khaldoon to Vico to Spengler  or literary giants who appropriated philosophy of history such as Joyce.) He has, generally speaking, not cared to read other schools or scriptures in an academic manner (he can’t even name many key books that have the authority of the scripture we find in Sacred Books of the East series) and then arrived at his present dogmatism. He is neither aware of science of interpretation (especially its recent developments in the West) nor enormous cultural richness of  his tradition and is committed to what is called legal supremacist view that writes off poetic, philosophical, mystical or other modes of folk or mythic  narratives that have been central to people across cultures in Islamic lands.
Ask any sectarian preacher or ideologue who thinks he has Truth, the whole truth (that can dissolve all inquiries) on his side any of the following questions and you will come to know how much he knows or cares about the Truth/God he sells by opening special dealership of Paradise Pvt:Ltd:

  • How many religions are in the world and could you please state basic foundation or kalimah of them? 
  • Why so much anxiety about minute details about God’s law (and sectarian clashes on them) if it is God’s grace(fazl) that is required to save us? 
  • Could you state how your school’s metaphysics and epistemology diverges from rivals sects and how do you respond to dozens of critiques of theological narratives underlying divergent sects and religions in modern times? 
  • What is meant by two paradises(jannatan) in the Quran?
  •  If sins punish us and sawabs lead to heaven, what is God doing or how he becomes relevant in final dispensation? 
  • Name any one work that God does without mediate causes and what do you mean by saying God does all things?
  •  Is God arbitrarily choosing to accept certain prayers or it needs goodness in the servant? If later is the case what is the role of God? 
  • What good deeds he had done that he was born a Muslim and his path to paradise became easier for him and what sins another person born of non-Muslim parents? 
  • How come traditional Islamic theology calls God the one who leads astray (Al-Muzill) and who inflicts loss – though both these roles are usually reserved for Satan? 
      Let us see if it is to a Mulla or an exoteric authority to whom one turns regarding the weightiest matter (religion/God) or to a saint/sage who doesn’t preach by words but by presence and wins our hearts, minds and souls and leaves no inquiries on moral, intellectual and spiritual planes unaddressed.