Thursday, June 8, 2017

Ramadan as Time for Intellectual Jihad

( also published on the ABC RELIGION AND ETHICS WEBSITE  in a slightly different version)

As it is widely known Ramadan is usually understood as time for increasing intensity in ritualistic practice. Most unfortunately, last few Ramadans in particular are also being increasingly connected with acts of senseless violence and terrorism  perpetuated worldwide by groups like ISIS ( or individuals inspired by their beliefs)  whose perverted interpretation of Islam/Islamic history  views suicide bombing as especially meritorious acts of martyrdom and piety during this Holy Month. It is my contention, however, that Ramadan should foremost be a time for increased intellectual practice or intellectual jihad.

The Islamic intellectual tradition, including its fountainheads the Qur’an and Sunna, stress this intellectual jihad in myriad of ways. For example, one of the most repeatedly occurring themes in the Qur’an is that of intellectual reflection and contemplation (tadabbur /tafakkur). Sayings ( regardless of their actual ‘authenticity as per classical Islamic sciences)   such as ‘The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr ‘ and ‘ An hour of (intellectual) reflection/contemplation  is better than a one thousand years of worship’ testify to the strong intellectual core of the Islamic tradition that is in full harmony with the Qur’anic worldview. A good number of Muslim philosophers, rationalist theologians and jurists,  past and present, have also stressed the intellectually robust nature of the Islamic teachings ( and have often attracted criticism by strong  anti-intellectual currents in Islam that have always been there).  

Furthermore, the injunctions found in the Qur’an and Sunna pertaining to the performance of rituals are clearly linked to an underlying rationale ( ‘ila). So we are told (2:183) that  the reason for fasting is to increase our level of God consciousness (taqwa),  that the daily prayer (salat) is a means to keep us away from indecency/evil (29:45),  that the animal sacrifice at time of hajj (qurban) is purely symbolic in nature (22: 37). We are also told that the legal alms and charities (zakat) are levied in order to prevent the concentration of wealth among the rich (57: 7).

It is an inconvenient and theologically disturbing truth (that I as a believing, practicing Muslim am still grappling with) that many terrorists and the ISIS affiliated scholars they follow are ‘very big’ on  the ritualistic aspects of Islam such as fasting and praying ( and even ‘bigger’ on formalistic  ones such as beards and turbans)  yet they engage in senseless violence and terrorism.  Could this disconnect between ritualistic cum formalistic piety and their purposes at least in part explain this theological conundrum? While I do not have an equivocal answer to this question, the question is, in my view, worth asking and seriously reflecting on.

It is my considered view that a good number of contemporary Muslims have lost track of the intellectual jihad aspect of the Islamic tradition and have prioritised ritualistic and formalistic ‘piety’ over  that of intellectual and ethical one.  Ramadan is the perfect time to reclaim this invaluable aspect of our tradition.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

GCSCR Book Promotion Talk

Respected Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen, a very good evening to all!

First of all, I would like to thank the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research for organising this wonderful event as a celebration of scholarship and erudition. I would also like to express my gratitude to Associate Professor Halim Rane for his kind words, the effort and time he put to be with us tonight and his penetrating insights. I would also like to thank him for his continued support, especially in relation to my research interests in general, and with respect to my interest in progressive Islam in particular.

I would like to use this time to actually not just talk about my book but to make a few general points with respect to two issues:
1. Importance of scholarship and its role in making the public more informed on issues of public concern
2. Address some common misconceptions about progressive Islam.

Let me start by saying that in the time of what some have referred to as the post-truth society, at the time of proliferation of alternative facts, at the time of the dominance of short news-media cycles and social media platforms there is, in my view, nothing more important than that the events like one today, that celebrate careful and critical thought scholarship and erudition, are held and promoted. It is my hope that this will be continued in the future.

 As someone who prides himself to be a scholar-activist I particularly see value in the production of high quality scholarship as an important  intellectual weapon, and I have chosen the word weapon intentionally,  to countering  poorly informed and shallow thinking based on unjustified, factually  incorrect  and, in the final analysis, irresponsible claims  that circulate in some primarily  non-academic circles.  As someone who has been publishing on various aspects of contemporary Islam for a decade and is also engaged in a variety of non-academic discourses on it, I am only too aware of the harmful effects these kinds of discourses can and do have on societies. 

Non-conservative forms of Islam have often been marginalised both in scholarship (apart from as instruments for various political agendas) and, at times, ridiculed by both certain sections of Muslim and non-Muslim communities for being ‘not Muslim enough’ or for being ‘diluted’ if not far-fetched or ‘outlandish’ versions of ‘true’ Islam. One the one hand, that ‘true’ Islam is portrayed by some non-Muslims as inevitably misogynist, barbaric and anti-intellectual, rejecting modern values and international norms. On the other hand, conservative, not to mention puritan Muslim groups, without actually engaging properly with the theories underpinning, in this case progressive Islam, erroneously  reject it as something ‘western’ or ‘secular’. 

Needless to say that these kind of critiques are not only based on intellectual laziness, apologetics  and lack of erudition but that  they  utterly fail in doing justice to the theory of progressive Islam as presented in not only in  the book of mine we showcase today but also  my first book published six years ago  that grew out of my Ph.D. thesis which  is a careful and systematic engagement of progressive Islam’s conceptualisation of  and approach to the Islamic intellectual tradition and its hermeneutical theory in particular.

Let us go back to the claim that progressive Islam is ‘secular’. Putting aside issues pertaining to the theorising the concept of secularism as, for example,  discussed at length by scholars such as Charles Taylor,  those who subscribe to this view would be surprised to find out  that in my book on the imperatives of progressive Islam I have used the words ‘secularity’ , ‘secular’, ‘secularise’ and ‘secularism’ once only respectively .
In my first book I explicitly stated that:

it is clear that progressive Muslims do not subscribe to commonly employed dichotomies such as, tradition vs. modernity, secularism vs. religion, or simplistic generalization such as modernity =Western or Judeo- Christian intellectual /civilizational tradition”.( P.124)…

Elsewhere in the same book I also argued as follows:

“it is important to note that progressive Muslims are critical
of the metanarratives underpinning classical modernity and the Age of
Enlightenment characterized by the notions of a universal legislative, secular,
and objective reason and objective truth. Instead, they advocate what
Sheyla Benhabib would describe as a weak form postmodernism where
truth is sought in a dialectical relationship between revelation, reason, and
the sociohistorical context in which both are embedded.

According to this view, [r]ationality and belief, human rights and divine obligation, individual and social justice, collective reason and religious morality, human mind and divine revelation are living peacefully together.”,p.135.

The same arguments apply in relation to the concept or idea of progressive Islam being ‘western’ (needless to say that the conceptual foundations of a western civilisation have been seriously questioned by scholars like K. A. Appiah).

In my first book I have provided a detailed discussion on how progressive Muslim thought approaches the concept of modernity and its relationship with the “West’ where I argued as follows:

Progressive Muslims, thus, subscribe to the view that the
Socio-political and cultural processes that have brought about epistemological
and ontological changes in the Western worldview and resulted
in the advent of modernity as we know it today are considered a result of
a dynamic process of civilizational interaction and mutual construction
through transcultural, trans-political, and trans-social spaces. Additionally,
progressive Muslims believe that this late modern episteme could be also
applied within the framework of the sociocultural context of the Muslim
majority societies resulting in the genesis of another distinct type of
modernity. ( p.136).

So if progressive Islam is not ‘western’ or ‘secular ‘what is it? In a nutshell Progressive Islam is but a contemporary articulation of Islamic humanistic and cosmopolitan values, beliefs and practices. It is an approach to the Islamic tradition based on:

1. creative, critical and innovative thought based on epistemological openness and methodological fluidity,
2. Islamic liberation theology, 
3. social and gender justice , 
4. a human rights based approach to Islamic tradition, 
 5. rationalist and contextualist approaches to Islamic theology and ethics, and 
6. affirmation of religious pluralism

In actual fact these six points are the main subject matter of the book that we are highlighting tonight.

Finally, some people might ask as to why I employ the term progressive in progressive Islam/progressive Muslim thought. While I have provided a systematic and detailed discussion of what this means from a  philosophical, epistemological and methodological perspective in my academic writings on the subject matter let me as my final point, outline briefly four reasons as to why this is the case :

Reason one : Quran and Sunna were progressive in approaching ethical and legal issues of that time by having a more ethical vision beyond what was considered as status quo and customary ( ma'ruf/ 'urf) ! Progressive Islam wants to stay true to this vision.
Reason two: ethical values like justice and fairness do not remain frozen in time. They, as collective human experience testifies, in principle are subject to change as God's creative powers have a direct bearing on our own collective reason and our collective ethico-moral compass. Our aim is to ever more faithfully approximate the Divine as source of absolute Beauty, Justice and Mercy and that is only possible if our ethical systems do not remain frozen ( as in case of traditionalist/pre-modern based approaches)  and are theorized in such a manner to allow space for progress /improvement in the never ending quest for ethical perfection. Theory of progressive Islam does exactly that.

Reason three: to highlight the strong affinities in the kind of theologies, interpretational approaches and socio-political and ethical values that exist among progressive religious/spiritual movements worldwide whose pillars are affirmation of religious pluralism and strong commitment to social and gender justice. For example, the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

Reason four: For the same reason why we have Sufi Islam, Sunni Islam, Shi'i Islam. It's about affirming the fact that progressive Islam has its own methodology of interpretation, its own theological orientation  and its own approach to conceptualising the Islamic intellectual tradition (that are discussed in my works systematically and in some detail).
Progressive Islam has not had much, if any, concrete support either from the “West” or from Muslim majority countries so far. Therefore, I am particularly thankful to those associated with Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research who have organised this even tonight in helping raise awareness about progressive Islam/progressive Muslim thought.  It is my dream that Griffith University will, in due course, become the global intellectual and academic hub for continued growth and theorising of progressive Islam as I am convinced that progressive Islam has so much to offer to both Muslims and non-Muslim alike.