Fundamentalism versus pluralism in religion

Religion is eternal but no single religious interpretation is final, the last religion is here but the last understanding of religion has not arrived.

Ali Ahmad September 23, 2010
''The principle of movement in the structure of Islam''

(Allama Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought In Islam)

Religious fundamentalism has been described in various terms and jargon; however the most compelling description of fundamentalism when we consider the topics of knowledge production and social practice is’ the virtual absence of historical scholarship, liberty and rationality.’

Fundamentalists are by no means inclined towards force but they do deny the call for reform and change, arguing that religion is unchangeable hence any interference by human beings through manipulative means of interpretation is an adulteration of the purity of faith. In one clear move human reason is subordinated under an imagined social reality which disregards historicity and is trapped by rigidity.

Fundamentalism has a worldview of perpetual dystopia, that the 'Golden Age' of faith is gone and we must strive backwards to recreate the conditions of that time.

Fundamentalist interpretations of religion

There are multiple fundamentalisms ranging from how we interpret texts, make our laws and define our culture, but there are some commonalities running through this family of fundamentalisms.

Literary fundamentalism

Literary fundamentalists argue that religious texts are to be read in a historical fashion (ignoring historical context and processes), with human reason being subordinated to said religious scripture under the burden of a dry literalism and that human beings should not actively deliberate on religious texts as that could threaten the absolute supremacy of the Divine. In addition the whole corpus of religious scholarship should be treated as efforts of a transcendent rationality of the pious elders of a long lost utopian medieval past.

In such a construct human beings should have no free will outside the confines of religious texts, knowledge should be only derived from religious texts and our practices based on said texts. This text-fundamentalism undermines critical enquiry, and freezes religious texts beyond the scope of human reason and unaffected by historical change.

For the fundamentalist history does not exist. What was good five centuries ago must be good for today as well, otherwise the eternity of religion is undermined. This destruction and manipulation of history is widespread in Pakistan.

The ultra traditional construction of human rationality is inspired partly by legal and textual traditionalists and conservative theologians, the Asharites. The Asharites too, for instance, posit in moral philosophy that good and evil can only be determined in exclusive conjunction with religious texts.

The Mu’tazilites, on the other hand, argue that good and evil can be determined by all human beings regardless of creed because of a common and natural reason and disposition, in other words a form of natural law theory reminiscent of the Catholic and Enlightenment traditions of moral reasoning (for example John Locke). Here we can speak of moral fundamentalism, that morality is only accessible to people who follow one particular religious interpretation and the rest are woefully misguided incapable of leading good lives.

Literary fundamentalism posits that religious texts exclusively are the only bastions of wisdom and knowledge. Why read the great works of philosophy and literature. Why read Kant, Mill or poets such as Rumi and Hafez? Why indeed, when Sayyid Qutb the religious ideologue who exhibited this type of thought wrote since we have faith why bother with the "defects, contradictions, and confusions inherent in man-made philosophies and systems."

Pluralistic interpretations of religion

By the passage of time and throughout history great shifts in our thinking occur such as the emergence of modern science, the social sciences and the emphasis on empirical, naturalistic explanations of the world are readily ignored by the fundamentalist. ‘’Islam is for all time’’, hence why the need for human interference in interpretation? But this notion is precisely undermined by new and critical Muslim intellectuals. Hassan Hanafi the Egyptian philosopher throughout his work argues that there is not, cannot be and has never been a uniform interpretation of religious scripture. Human interpretation is essentially a pluralistic endeavor. As Abdol Karim Soroush points out:
"All understanding assumes suppositions and entails 'categorisation,' that is subsuming the particular under universal categories and concepts. Understanding religion is no exception. It is preceded by certain assumptions and principles which are necessary conditions for its intelligibility and interpretation."

Soroush a prominent Iranian philosopher undermined the clerical authority over religious interpretation by suggesting his theory of ‘’Contraction and Expansion of Religious Knowledge’’.

The basic premise of the theory is that religion is divine and perfect, but religious knowledge is by no means perfect or divine, the interpreter is always fallible, and interpretation by its nature due to human fallibility always pluralistic. In this theory Soroush realises there are several crucial points to establish, such as the fact human reason is capable of being trusted and should be used, (hence his claims of initiating a neo-Mu’tazilite project), all knowledge is historicised (influenced by historical conditions) and never a historical and human beings have always engaged actively with religious texts at times impressing their own preconceptions onto these texts.

Assigning mere human beings infallibile just because of the antiquated value of their views is dangerous. This does not by any means devalue great pieces of literature, art or philosophy but enhances and humanises our experience vis a vis the piece in question. It provides a three dimensional portrait, giving us insight into the genesis of the creation, and can open new avenues for understanding.

Religion is eternal but no single religious interpretation is final, the last religion is here but the last understanding of religion has not arrived. Religious knowledge is in continuous flux. We can have general moral values and principles which can stay constant but how we apply them in terms of politics, institutions must continually change to keep pace with social developments.

Indeed we must remember the distinction (from the Islamic legal tradition)  between the two main categories of legal rulings (ahkam):  ‘ibadat (ritual/spiritual acts) and mu‘amalat (social/contractual acts).

Ziba Mir Hosseini writes:
"Rulings in the first category, ‘ibadat, regulate relations between God and the believer, where jurists contend there is limited scope for....change, since they pertain to the spiritual realm and divine mysteries. This is not the case with mu‘amalat, which regulate relations among humans and remain open to rational considerations and social forces. Since human affairs are in constant change and evolution, there is always a need for new rulings, based on new interpretations of the sacred texts, in line with the changing realities of time and place."

The imminent danger of 'pamphlet Islam'

When we speak of change and reform in the religious context, it has nothing to do with beliefs, and the main pillars of Islam but the social, political, legal and ethical applications of the faith. Legal and political fundamentalists will constantly speak of a 'sharia' system and Caliphate, ignoring the conflicting opinions and diversity within Islam. They completely ignore the distinction between religion and religious knowledge, and do not even think of the historical contexts in which Islamic law has operated in.

By imposing narrow limits and constructs over the interpretation of religion, we ignore the other precious dimensions. Religion is not only legal, it is ethical, moral, spiritual and experiential as well. The divine in Pakistan is stripped of ethics, spirituality, philosophy, and culture and only fixated on doctrine and law. Ziauddin Sardar captures this eloquently, when he said in a recent interview:
"Islam in Pakistan, I am afraid, has ceased to be a religion and a worldview; it has become an obsession, a pathology. It has been drained of all ethics and has become a mechanism for oppression and injustice."

Fundamentalists not only manipulate our literary heritage but our wider culture and dupe us into believing that without accepting their narrow moralisms and religious teaching we as a society are hopelessly devoid of any serious civilization.

Fundamentalists instead of living with uncertainty, suck the life out of intellectual pursuit by hammering out formulaic and sterile pamphlets about 'Science in the Quran' and other such erroneous attempts. These are reductive attempts aimed at propaganda simultaneously discrediting the Islamic tradition and reinforcing the stereotype Muslims cannot rationally engage in philosophical debate.

This stretches the philosophical and linguistic content of the Muslim traditions to the breaking point and such endeavours are 'feel-good confidence boosting' exercises for those insecure in their faith threatened by outside intellectual influences. It makes a mockery of the same intellectual tradition which has produced the likes of Ibn Rushd.

It is this 'pamphlet Islam' which Omid Safi describes as being fostered by fundamentalist thinking:
"I think Muslims are in imminent danger - if we are not there already - of succumbing to 'pamphlet Islam,' the fallacy of thinking that complex issues can be handled in four or six glossy pages"

Fundamentalism or pluralism?

Hermeneutics being the art of interpretation, allows for several expressions of human understanding according to the inescapable time frame and circumstances that, we reside in. What are the sociological, psychological, cultural influences behind the text? Literary theory and other methods of textual and cultural analysis should be applied to our rich textual tradition and religious texts, so that we can open new avenues of meditation and complementation. Many Muslim intellectuals have tried to start such a process.

Fundamentalism in all its spheres (legal, social, political, literary and cultural) erodes the foundations of intellectual enquiry, blocking the means for ijtihad and critical thought and fostering an environment of social intimidation that prevents new cultural, religious and literary expressions and if unchallenged can pave the way for bigger evils such as an intolerant religiosity and cultural chauvinism.
Ali Ahmad A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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