Economic Prosperity Or Political Empowerment Won’t Cure Islamist Arrogance; Attitudinal Shifts Required
Why it’s time to bring back the Mutazalite traditions (rational comprehension) among Indian Muslims.
The Asharite were a school of Islamic theology that emerged in the ninth century. They believed in the absolute unity and power of God and rejected the idea that God's attributes could be understood through human reason.
The Mutazilites, on the other hand, believed in the rational comprehension of God and his attributes. The Asharite theology had a significant impact on the Islamic world, especially in the Sunni tradition, and ultimately was able to defeat the Mutazalite theology.
The Asharite theology became the dominant theology in the Muslim world and continues to be an influential and widely accepted interpretation of Islam.
A B Shah, co-founder of the Indian Secular Society along with Hamid Dalwai wrote the foreword to Dalwai’s seminal work Muslim Politics in India.
Shah’s essay-like foreword written decades ago, yet relevant, is an equally important body of writing that needs to be disseminated in the Muslim academia. It sets out to raise the critical spirit so lacking in the Muslim world especially the Indian subcontinent.
In three parts, it talks about what is known as the "intellectual suicide" in Islam, when literal interpretation of texts and fanaticism won over reasoning and rationality. The philosophers (falasuf) were forever condemned as heretics and thus wajib ul qatl (justified for murder).
In part two of the essay-like foreword, A B Shah describes that Greeks, bereft of prophets, or a church or any holy text, or incarnation of God had to rely on reason and observation alone to discover the nature of things.
Having no burden of the unchanging Truth of a holy book or prophetic cult, Christian culture influenced by the Greeks was able to develop a tradition of critical inquiry and a climate of tolerance to let a ‘hundred schools contend’ in A B Shah’s quoted words.
Nothing similar happened in the Islamic culture except for a brief time during Caliph al Mamun’s reign (813-833) because “Islam rose in a society that was riven with inter-tribal feuds, had no state worth the name and did not hesitate to subject dissent to crude tribal persecution”.
“The rapid and spectacular expansion of Islam during the hundred years following the death of the prophet over the stagnant and often decadent societies of the surrounding region also had an inhibitory effect on its future development. For, continued victory over others strengthened the Muslim's conviction that his faith was not only perfect but superior to others, and its doctrine, infallible".
"Dissent, when it arose, was ruthlessly put down in Islam as in medieval Christianity, so that even the finest and most courageous of Muslim scholars were careful to avoid saying anything that might appear as questioning the fundamental tenets of the faith.”
Shah then goes on to describe how al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the champion of the Asharite, effectively destroyed the cause of the Mutazilites reasoning philosophers and theologians who made use of Greek and Indic (Vedic) ideas, in the exposition and defence of Islamic theological doctrine.
‘Closing of the Muslim mind’ or the ‘intellectual suicide’ has been discussed at length in Anouar Majid’s A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent is Vital to Islam and America and in Robert R. Reilly’s book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.
A B Shah cyclically elaborates why the elite Muslim liberals don’t ask tough questions and are playing it safe.
The backlash that started in the medieval age after the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam continues to this day with “no renaissance ever having taken place in Muslim Society except in Turkey”. That too partially in my opinion, considering Kemalism was enforced by ‘secular guns’, according to Mustafa Akyol in Islam Without Extremes: A Case for Muslim Liberty.
Shah further writes that “an articulate class of liberal Muslims is missing from the scene, such is the hold of orthodoxy” (read ulema and in the case of Indian Muslims the AIMPLB), yet this class is the only one which can “subject the traditions of Islam to a critical scrutiny and prepare the ground for the entry of Muslim society into the modern age.”
My late husband Arshid Malik used to say that the Left failed in its socialism/communism especially in Russia (the former Soviet Union) because no cultural or social revolution took place.
I took this to mean that unless there are paradigm shifts in attitudes, socially and culturally, any effort at changes is just cosmetic.
Shah writes in agreement: “For, as the experience of developing countries in the post-war period shows, efforts to modernize the political and economic systems in the absence of social and cultural modernization accompanying, if not preceding them can only result in frustration or perversion.”
The attitudinal shifts must come at the grass root level. No amount of economic prosperity, or political empowerment can change the basic attitude of Muslims who fervently believe that theirs is the superior religion, superior culture and they are God's chosen Ummah.
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