By Waris Mazhari
September 22, 2016
Among the gravest threats facing humankind
today is extremism resulting from erroneous interpretations of religious
teachings. Almost every religion has some teachings or the other that if not
understood and practiced in the right manner can have disastrous effects, at
both the individual as well as collective level. For instance, many religions
underscore the need to protect society from anti-social elements, call for
eradicating injustice, advocate establishing justice, and sanction self-defence
in exceptional circumstances.
All of these things are part of our basic
human duties. But if ignorance and immorality leads some people to develop distorted
and deviant perspectives about these issues, it can easily lead to violent
conflict in society. If this happens, religious teachings that were meant for
promoting goodness and human welfare come to be used as a means to foment
violence and destruction.
In this regard, Islam is faced with a
particular predicament—of being viewed through a distorted lens by both those
who claim to follow it as well as others. That it is misunderstood by others is
not as surprising as the fact that it is misunderstood by many of those who
claim to be its adherents, who are themselves destroying the religious and
cultural bases of the tradition that they say they follow. These people are
projecting their own religious teachings as a grave threat to the world.
The source of this distorted understanding
of Islam is the intellectual crisis that Muslims have fallen prey to over the
last three or four centuries. Several factors are responsible for this crisis,
and unless these are properly understood, no meaningful efforts can be made to
help Muslims come out of the morass in which they find themselves and to turn
Muslim thought back in the right
In part, the intellectual crisis of
present-day Muslims can be traced to the suppression of the movement of Islamic
rationalism by the traditionalist, orthodox Ulema in the early centuries of
Islam. In the conflict between reason (Aql) and text (Nass), the
suppression of reason played a major role in the ensuing intellectual
stagnation of Muslims.
A second factor for this intellectual
crisis of Muslims was the supposed closing of the ‘doors’ of Ijtihad’, creative
reflection on and application of Islamic teachings in new contexts, in the 4th
century AH following the establishment of the various schools of Islamic
jurisprudence (fiqh). Who closed these ‘doors’ and when is a separate issue,
but the fact is that, for all practical purposes, meaningful Ijtihad did come
an end and its ‘doors’ remain closed till this very day.
A third factor for the present-day
intellectual crisis of Muslims is the inability of Muslim leaders to understand
the social political challenges that have emerged as a result of various
socio-cultural processes. This, and a desperate clinging to the past, meant
that Muslims were unable to relate intellectually with the present. Related to
this is the fact that in seeking to preserve their intellectual heritage in the
face of modernity, they uncritically continued to hold fast on to even those
aspects of that heritage that were not a part of Islam as such, but, rather,
reflected the influence of particular historical and socio-cultural contexts in
which that heritage emerged.
Because of all of these inter-related
factors, Muslim thought has strayed far off from the straight path.
The greatest need of the ‘Muslim world’
today is the reconstruction of Islamic thought so that Muslims can
appropriately relate to contemporary socio-political demands. The
poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) attempted to do precisely this
through his monumental work The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam
(1930), but the book failed to have any noticeable impact on the traditional
ulama class, even though they counted themselves among Iqbal’s greatest
admirers. While they were all praise for his poetry, they rebutted this serious
academic work of his that raised many questions about traditional Muslim
With regard to the renewal and
reconstruction of Islamic thought, one dimension that needs particular
attention is Muslim political theory. This urgently needs to be re-looked at.
Aspects of this political theory that have now become irrelevant, and, more
than this, have turned into a threat to the world of today, must be completely
renounced so that the younger generation of Muslims can be protected from falling
prey to deviant thinking and thus going astray.
Controversial and completely un-Islamic
notions such as the global political hegemony of Islam, offensive jihad,
considering other people’s lack of faith in Islam as a sufficient cause to wage
war against them, and regarding war, not peace, to be the basis of relations
with people of other faiths regrettably remain deeply entrenched in some Muslim
quarters despite the fact that they can in no way be proven from the Quran and
the practice of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
These notions fuel conflictual relations
with people of other faiths. Islamic scholars must clarify that these notions
have actually no Islamic legitimacy at all, contrary to what radical extremists
claim. The enormous confusion in Islamic circles about these issues has
resulted, on the one hand, in great misunderstandings about Islam among
non-Muslims, and, on the other hand, has facilitated the emergence and rapid
spread of extremism and radicalism among a section of Muslims.
The major share of the blame for the
enormous misunderstandings about Islam that abound today, particularly with
regard to the issues mentioned above, lies with the traditionalist Ulema, and,
more than them, the Islamists or votaries of a politics-centric interpretation
of Islam, who dream of imposing and enforcing their particular interpretation
or version of the Shariah and establishing global what they regard as Islamic
political dominance—or, in other words, their own rule.
The traditionalist Ulema are mired in
stagnation, while the Islamists are a victim of literalism. These two classes
seek to establish the political theology that emerged in the Middle Ages, when
Muslims enjoyed political dominance in large parts of the world, word for word,
without making any changes in it. The only difference between the two is that
the former gives stress to ‘patience’ and ‘waiting’ as a means to realise its
dream of establishing this political ideology, while the latter is driven by a
frenzied zeal to revive the past political glory of Muslims at any cost and
without any delay. Because of this, the image of Islam is being terribly
stained and in such a way as has never happened before. All across the world,
there is a rapid escalation of hate for Muslims, and, moreover, Muslims
themselves are killing each other.
While much has been written on various
other aspects of Muslim jurisprudence, very little work has been done on an
issue of immense contemporary import—Islamic political jurisprudence. Because
this issue has not received the attention that it deserves, there is a huge
vacuum in Islamic political theology, which is being taken advantage of by
radical Islamists, who falsely claim to speak for Islam.
this regard, it is truly lamentable that the mindset of traditional Ulema is
such that they are not interested in taking up the task of addressing this
vacuum, although this work of rethinking Islamic political theory is something
that they would be more effective in doing because of the great influence that
they have on general Muslim thinking. On the other hand, there are relatively
few modernist Islamic scholars who can combine both traditional wisdom and
modern perspectives and fill this enormous gap. One hopes that this issue will
receive the attention that it so sorely deserves.
Today’s world is a closely interlinked
‘global village’. A saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “All God’s creatures are
His family’’ reflects this reality, and we all, Muslims and everyone else, have
to learn to live together in harmony, like members of one large, well-knit
family. It is for each one of us to try to unite this family, through love, not
to divide it, through hate. There is a very urgent need today for interfaith
dialogue on a vast scale in order to promote mutual understanding, which is
simply indispensable for peaceful coexistence at every level.
In this way, the external nearness between
religious communities across the world that has come about through new
communications technologies can evolve into an authentic, inner nearness.
Today, this is the most urgent task for those who have true love for Islam to
undertake and another major responsibility for Islamic scholars, besides other
A graduate of the Dar ul-Ulum Deoband, Waris Mazhari did a Ph.D. from the
Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, where he is currently
The exercise of critical
thinking and independent judgement-or ijtihad- was an important way to address
to questions in the early centuries of Islam. However from the 10th
century onwards, Sunny Muslim leaders began to see questioning as politically
dangerous to their ability to rule. Regrettably the leaders of the Sunny Muslim
world closed the “Gates of Ijtihad”.
Muslims can follow
the pattern of ‘Vatican Council’ and open the gates of Ijtihad. Every hundred
year bishops from all parts of the world gather in Vatican and discuss the
issues at hand, reason them through, and come to a consensus. Vatican Council
II in 1962 addressed relations between the Catholic Church and the Modern
World. One of the important decisions they had taken is that the heaven is not
only for the authentic Catholics but also for other Christians. This had brought lot of consternation among
Catholics. Recently Pope Francis after discussions with bishops, declared that
Atheists who genuinely love people would also go to heaven; for heaven is
governed by love.
scholars can open the gates of Ijtihad by initially posing the question who would
go to heaven. I am not asking the silly question whether Mother Theresa, Nelson
Mandela Florence Nightingale or Gandhi would go to heaven. I know according to
Islamic theology they will be burning in hell for eternity. I am asking whether
the Sunnis, Shias, Sufis, Ahmadis, who believe in the oneness of Allah, Koran
and the last prophet will go to heaven. Since heaven is the main temptation for
practicing Islam, this would lead to consider the Koran as a foundation for a
strictly religious life, whose ultimate goal is to bring comfort and peace to a
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