A ROUNDTABLE discussion on “Religion and Human Rights” was organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front on June 14. Regrettably, most media reports ignored the main speeches and sensationalised some questions and answers in such a way that it appeared to be an exercise in religious authority bashing.
In fact, it was a thought-provoking deliberation on many themes, one prominent one being whether Islam permits independent thought, reason and reflection.
Religion and reason: On this issue, Surah 20:114 of the Holy Quran must be noted. “O my Lord, advance me in knowledge”. The very first revelation to Prophet Muhammad reads: “Recite: In the name of thy Lord who created man from a clot. Recite: And thy Lord is the most generous Who taught by the pen, taught man that which he knew not.” (96:1-5).
Many sayings of Prophet Muhammad supplement the Quran’s command to advance knowledge. “Seek knowledge even though it be in China.” “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” “God has revealed to me, that the best form of worship is the pursuit of knowledge.”
For the first four centuries of Islam, reason was employed to understand revelation. Innovation through ijtihad (independent reasoning) flourished in all areas where the felt necessities of the times required a solution which could not be found explicitly in the syariah.
Prophet Muhammad approved the exercise of reason to fill the gaps not filled by the Quran or the hadith (his sayings).
Prof James Piscatori of Durham University was of the opinion that rationalism is part of Islam.
Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa pointed out that the Mutazilite school of thought (8th to 10th century) espoused reason and rational thought.
Muslim jurists used many accepted doctrines like maqasid syariah (objective of the law) to interpret religious theory in such a way as to minimise contradictions with human rights norms.
In the area of science, David Batchelor points out there are approximately 750 verses in the Holy Quran on natural phenomena. For example, Surah 32:8-9 describes the development of the human foetus in the womb.
Many people will find it difficult to believe that eminent scholars and ground-breaking scientists flourished in Islamic civilisation from the 8th to the 13th century. Libraries flourished in Baghdad and Cordoba.
Arabic was the lingua franca of science and technology. By the 10th century, Muslim zeal for learning resulted in Greek medical and scientific writings being translated into Arabic.
In turn, many Arabic texts were translated into Latin, but with the names of Islamic scholars “Latinised” to obscure their identity. Thus Ibnu Sina became Avicenna; al-Ghazali was changed to Algazel; Ibn Rushd to Averroes and al-Razi to Rhazes.
Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, in addressing an IT conference in Minnesota, spoke of the Islamic civilisation “whose multicultural armies enabled peace and prosperity; whose commerce extended from the Americas to China and who driven by invention, gave humanity the gifts of algebra and algorithms.
The society cured disease, carried out complicated surgical operations and laid the foundations for modern medicine and physiology. While most of the world was steeped in ignorance and fearful of ideas, this civilisation kept knowledge alive.”
Regression: Sadly, Muslims have now fallen into a deep abyss. With the closure of the gates of ijtihad by Sunni Muslim jurists after the first four centuries of Islam, the intellectual and political decline became evident.
Reason is shunned, not just by the fanatics but by the vast majority of Muslims. Narrowest and most regressive doctrines have an unassailable hold on Muslim minds.
Suppression of thought characterises Muslim societies.
Free thinkers like Ibn Rushd, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Ibn al-Rawandi, al-Biruni and Abdolkarim Soroush are victimised and their books banned.
Moderation, toleration and rationality are viewed with suspicion. Taqlid(unquestioning obedience) is the natural choice of most Muslims.
A religion that shunned a priestly hierarchy has ironically developed an autocratic ecclesiastical elite that brooks no dissent, suppresses diversity and interprets the sacred texts in the most literal way.
In mutual exchange for loyalty, the political masters, despite many misgivings, support the religious elite even when the latter issue edicts and undertake actions that are intolerant, divisive, unconstitutional and according to Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin, even contrary to moderate interpretations of the religion.
Reconstruction: What can be done to recapture the spirit of inquiry that animated the early years of Islam and to revive the wonder that was early Islam? There is no dearth of books. Mohammad Iqbal’s The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is an example.
The gates of ijtihad must be pried open. Reason must be employed to interpret revelations.
A purely literal, textual and strict constructionist approach must give way to a purposive and contextual interpretation.
In a spirit of inclusiveness, Islamic jurists of all persuasions must be consulted to find new solutions to problems like terrorism and abuse of women that afflict many Muslim societies.
A distinction must be made between syariah (the revealed law) and fiqh (juristic opinions). The former is divine and eternal but subject to flawed human interpretations. The latter is man-made and amenable to change.
The traditional Islamic curriculum, unchanged for centuries, is devoted exclusively to the works of approved imams and scholars.
It should be modified to reflect the rich intellectual diversity that exists in Islam.
Finally, religions are not only about worship, atonement and personal salvation. They are also about service to humanity.
Many Muslim societies suffer from poverty and deprivation.
Even in the more affluent ones, there are pockets of suffering where the rays of justice do not reach.
All Muslim must therefore imbibe the spirit of Surah Al-Baqara: 177 where it is stated that piety is not manifested just by turning our faces to the East or West. Piety is to give of our wealth to our kin, orphans, poor, wayfarers and to those who ask. Piety is to pay zakat, to set slaves free and to observe our obligations.
It is in such service to humanity that true righteousness and obedience to Allah is manifested.
Shad Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM. He wishes all Muslim brothers and sisters “Selamat berbuka puasa”. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.