Religion is not just a set of rules; it is a source of meaning and purpose, a foundation for integrity and virtues. It is a realm of prophets, heroes, myths, angels and miracles featured in powerful narratives of triumph and redemption. For many, religion’s deep reaching personal resonance has made it a convenient compass for “justice”, however defined. In the best of times it can inspire us to love the world, to see the happiness of others as very much a part of the divine plan. In the worst of times, we recoil and hold on to religion like a shield, doing all we can to find every verse, line, grudge and memory in our tradition to make us harder, stronger if not colder and more resistant to change or influence.
Religion also remains a compelling option to many for its promise of transcendence. For some, this transcendence takes the form of an omnipotent God. For others it is a higher world or way of being than the one experienced every day. It is towards that transcendence that faith is felt and directed.
I use the word “faith” in this case, in its most general sense to mean the acceptance of truths without any need of evidence: that is to say, taking for granted as “true”, claims that we cannot verify by our senses. By that, one would be right to say that all human beings, regardless of belief, live one way or another, with some degree of faith. But matters are further complicated when it comes to religion. For it renders faith not just an attitude but also a measure of character. Islam is a good example of this: Muslims are not only to have faith in God’s existence, but that very faith is also to guide us towards a moral life without which we would supposedly be wandering aimlessly.
That has been the subject of much cynicism lately with many suspecting, with good examples, that Islam is an unjust faith: they point to the fact of our slow embrace of gender equality, freedom of conscience and other ways of life as evidence of Islam’s inherent incapacity to evolve and address complex questions in a rapidly changing world. This observation can get rather simplistic and crude at times but rarely is it completely false or insignificant. One need not look further than Malaysia to find examples: we may be modern in the range of things we can buy and places to shop, but the stark support, silence and indifference, expressed recently towards the deportation of a mere Tweeter to his possible death suggests the great deal of work that needs to be done. We boast of diversity but the word Allah cannot be used by non-Muslims. All this says little of the rage that surfaces when the subject of conversion is raised.
The Limits of Progressive Islam
Progressive Muslims, in embracing democracy and human rights have done a great deal to distance themselves from the worst injustices committed by Muslims: We argue that it is not our place to judge where and who God’s mercy or wrath will fall. We protest crimes committed in the name of Islam to emphasize the faith’s egalitarian and compassionate essence. We argue that even the Qur’an, God’s words, must be understood contextually. The point emphasized time and time again is that the problem is not the religion Islam but Muslims themselves.
Our work nonetheless is still fundamentally limited: First, we are only with the capacity, and in fact only with the interest, to change the way the source is interpreted but not the source itself. This may be a trivial thing to say but the implication is far reaching. Try as I might to show that Islam regards both genders as of equal worth and dignity, I still have to live with the passages that suggest otherwise. Try as I might to argue that Islam is at heart egalitarian, I must as a Muslim still nonetheless accept, and to a certain extent appreciate, the verse that speak of crucifixion. We can present sophisticated ways to downplay the significance of certain problematic verses but we cannot surgically remove the potential that those verses might still be read to justify the most unjust laws.
This conundrum has compelled Asma Barlas to ask a brave question: “edged on [by skeptical critics], I wondered whether the Qur’an itself is responsible for it’s misreading. After all, why should a text bear no responsibility for how it is read, and why should it not anticipate the possibility of its misreading, hence abuse?” She was of course to answer her question with a no, advocating the need for interpretation to always be guided by justice. But the net effect of her worry is worth noting: the most that can be aimed for is not the eradication of blind faith but its mere taming.
Atheists, skeptical of even the progressive Muslim project, claim that the problem is not blind faith but the nature of faith itself. Like it or not, even the most progressive and reasonable Muslim will have to concede that a great deal of Islam’s basic claims (about the end of the world, an afterlife, the existence of angels, heaven and hell, and so forth) can only be accepted on faith. Moreover, the Qur’an – which the majority of Muslims also regard as a miracle – address, unscientifically, questions that have been more credibly explored by science, such as the orbit of the sun, the origin of the universe and the cause of natural disasters. Atheists locate the problem not in the unjust use of Qur’anic verses but the very need of faith itself, in the impulse to seek a transcendent or divine truth that cannot correspond to modern demands of rational inquiry: This, the atheist or agnostic would claim, is where the injustice really begins.
This is also why rationality remains the standard bearer for modern judicial institutions: Empirical evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, instead of what we think God might have said through a highly complex text has rightly become the preferred method of determining a person’s guilt or innocence. Furthermore, given that all religions assume their own standards of right and wrong which conflict with one another, it makes sense, in the name of justice, for the judiciary to assume, insofar as it is able, a rational standpoint.
History has shown that this rational, non-religious, worldview tends towards the establishment of a secular state, whereby the excesses of religious political ambitions are controlled if not extinguished altogether. This is very much a modern development, pioneered in “the West”, whereby the triumph of science and reason over religion and superstition is viewed as the era of Enlightenment, as evidence of man’s march towards freedom and fulfillment.
But the story has not been so simple. As Rached Ghannouchi said recently, the challenge begins with the reality that secularism too can be oppressive. The appalling examples of Syria and North Korea as unjust secular states are obvious enough. But for a more concrete case, consider the hijab ban in France, which set the trend for its subsequent ban in many other European countries. This, as we know was undertaken for many explicit and implicit reasons, one of which being the supposed defense of women’s rights. But even the most secular feminists were at pains to understand that if that was really the case, why similar uproar was not directed towards pornography, which has clearer imprints of misogyny. The eventual ban of minarets in Switzerland also demonstrated the extent to which secular laws could emerge out of irrational fears. Too many examples compel the question if a secular government really means a just government.
In this, we should recall that for all the legitimate claims of rationality’s advantage over faith, there has yet to be any empirical evidence for human rights, especially if we take them to be “natural” and “inalienable”. Let us also recall that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted with the ruins of the Second World War very much in the foreground, when the whole world witnessed how the European Enlightenment’s supposed triumph of reason and technology led to global imperialism, Auschwitz and Dresden.
As a secular progressive Muslim, I am of the belief that the state should be as a divorced as possible from religious control, that in the name of justice, law making should remain neutral and not privilege any particular religion. But as a secular progressive Muslim I also cannot, in good conscience, ignore the reality that secular conceit has proven to be as dangerous as religious conceit. Reason should be appreciated for what it can clarify, but it should not be overrated for what it can promise. Reason trumps faith, but only by a small and tenuous margin. Faith, in turn, should be traversed for the amazing hope and inspiration it can reap, but whatever intense passion therein should not be so easily assumed as truth.
As a Muslim reason is to be prized not because it is flawless but because, as Muhammad Asad reminded us many, many times, our faith would not be complete without it: it would not make sense without it. Faith and reason are powerful experiences but they are not separate, distinct worlds in themselves.
The grasping of this ideal of course remains a far out destination for Muslims given the political realities that are shaping our mindset. Indeed, it is the most painful irony of the current era of Islam that the great deal of conflicts that have seen its significant regression has nothing to do with religion at all. The Israeli occupation of Palestine is not about Jews against Muslims but land. The American war on Afghanistan and Iraq is not the latter day updating of the Crusades but an exercise in imperial hegemony towards the control of natural resources. We should also recall that it was in the trauma and turmoil of the American and Soviet scramble for Afghanistan that the Taliban’s misogynist brand of Islam took shape. In such examples, we find that the misinterpretation of Islam, more often than not, is the effect, not the cause. The conflicts may bear glaring evidences of religious fanaticism – a call to purity and an uncompromising return to tradition as it was first revealed – but rarely is that not also compelled by broader political insecurities: war, the loss of land, fear of the other and so forth.
An analogy can be drawn to shed light to the Malaysian context: the fact that Muslim identity in Malaysia has become so wedded to, in fact inseparable from, the agenda to protect Malay privileges says a great deal of the ethnic insecurities that color our appreciation of the Deen.
Beyond Faith and Reason
Indeed, the worst manifestations of injustices within a religious or secular framework can serve as an effective reminder of the issue at stake, and that is the reality of our imperfections.
“The fanatic” may think that their steadfast convictions – in their self-imposed segregation from other cultures and influences, or their ready and convenient threats of force – are a demonstration of their power. But this in reality is nothing but an even more pronounced concealment of their weakness – for why resort to force or segregation if they really are in control of the situation?
The need for faith is a very delicate, and for some, an all-consuming experience. For the believer, to be faithless is to be empty, to feel thrown into life with no sense or purpose. That hundreds of millions of human beings around the world are in need of faith as a crutch to continue living says a great deal about the human condition, namely of the frailty with which we exist. We seek transcendence because chance and nothingness are too much for us to bear. We need a God or a higher power because we have accepted our severe limitations as mortals.
Limitations are not in themselves bad: our realization of what we cannot do on our own, propel us to need and appreciate others. It strengthens families and enables communities to flourish. This is the fact of our social existence: God is self-sufficient in reliance of nothing or no one else. We are not God. It therefore follows, that our vulnerability, our real and pressing need for one another is only human. Strength and power, given this reality, is not measured in alienating others, but in the extent to which we can work together towards building a just society. It is the realization that there are truths and possibilities beyond the confines of our own culture, tradition and egos and the ability to explore those possibilities with no fear or threat. We are only truly in power – we can only demonstrate our control of the situation – if this can happen peacefully.
In its current usage justice refers to fairness, in other words, the granting of what’s due or deserved. The problem begins of course in the many ways that fairness can be defined: fairness yes, but according to whom and with regards to what, exactly? In a complex, globalized world as the one we live in today, no one group, person or culture should monopolize the answer to that question.
Faith then can be a positive force when it addresses the reality that the justice we deserve as members of a common humanity is not one of punishment or retribution but the building and repairing of human trust. Given the reality of our condition, as people of faith, we must overcome our insecurities towards discovering a horizon whereby we can finally speak and see the world without fear.
In this, it could very well be the case that the challenge towards the Muslim faith is not rationality or secularism so much as love, in the need for us to transcend our overwhelming need for purity and authenticity, and to appreciate others – in all the ambiguities and uncertainties that could yield – as much a part of the world our God created.
(This article was also published by Harakah Daily and the Malaysian Insider.)