Saturday, August 22, 2009

Religiosity and Fundamentalism

By Saeed Qureshi

There is quite an intensive debate raging on the prestigious forum of the ‘Family of Heart” on a striking topic “Religiosity and Fundamentalism”. The debate picked up momentum, following the assertion of Dr. Abrar Hasan that like the traditional religions, all other “isms” were also basically fundamentalist. The proponents of secularism, humanism, socialism, communism, capitalism and atheism, inter alia, have vigorously argued that primarily it was in the nature of religion alone, that it tends to be fundamentalist and backward looking. The debate is still apace and it is catapulting a very productive reservoir of intellectual output that can streamline, to a great extent, the dilemmas that have caught the imagination of the Islamic scholars and philosophers immediately after the expansion of Islamic empire beyond the Arab peninsula.

The Islamic scholastic luminaries such as Al ashari, Kindi, Arabia, Al Gazali, Ibne-Rushd and Ibne-Arabi, among others, have provided their respective outlooks on various vexatious issues that needed re-interpretation in the light of Quranic teachings. For instance Al Gazali reconciled mysticism and orthodoxy, Ibne-Bajja separated religious truth from intellectual truth. Likewise, Ibne-Arabi brought about a fusion between mysticism and philosophy. Ibne-Rush relied more on reason than theological truths. These contradictions, devolved on such unresolved questions as a perfect God and an imperfect world, an indivisbale God and a universe of multiplicity, free will and predestination and divine goodness and rampant evil.

Despite their philosophical and intellectual scrutiny of the Islamic ethos, these illustrious scholars seldom departed from the basic injunctions and precepts of Islam. The orthodoxy came under severe stress from the mystical extravaganza that maintained that for establishing a rapport and personal contact with God, religious precepts could be ignored. The orthodoxy was also threatened by the rational explanations of the thinkers and philosophers who in a way deviated from the purely clerical expositions of the fundamental teachings of Islam.

The Islamic orthodoxy or religiosity came under mystical and philosophical enquiries because it failed to satisfy the urge of the inquisitive minds with regard to justifying the viability of the fundamental beliefs in the subsequent times and in relation to the non Arab societies. The scientific discoveries have categorically nullified most of the religious beliefs that were purely based on blind faith as obligated by the religious framework. The religious interpretations are at variance with the scientific explanations of such phenomena as creation, earth, heavens, lightening, the mysterious diseases, the changes in weather cycles etc.

Despite an unending explosion of verifiable knowledge and irrefutable discoveries, the religious fundamentalists still fail to recognize them as the factual truths in comparison to the roundabout religious beliefs. There are ignorant among the humans who refuse to accept that the man has landed on the moon. The belief of “Shabe Meraj” (the night of ascension) or the night when Prophet Muhammad travelled to the heavens to meet God, has complete denial from the science. Same is the case with the commonly held belief that Prophet Muhammad performed the miracle of cutting the moon into two parts. The credulous religious followers staunchly believe that the prophet of Islam physically travelled on the back of a white horse to see God. According to the traditional dogma, the whole episode of traveling to and fro and meeting with God happened in a jiffy because the chain of the door lock was still moving and the bed was still warm when he came back from his heavenly odyssey. The fundamentalists among the religious believers would never abandon their obscurantist and irrational beliefs no matter how big the evidence, to the contrary, is produced before them.

Fundamentalism means irreconcilably believing in the religious edicts, creed and doctrines, traditions, customs and rituals that are believed to be prevalent at the inception of a certain religion and were unfolded by the founders of religions on behalf of God. While reverting to the past, these fundamentalist votaries and believers of particular faith fail to comprehend or acknowledge the huge, grandiose and radical changes that continue to happen in the human society with the time passage. However, they firmly hold that their creed was unchangeable and was valid for all times. Therefore, barring subjective beliefs residing in the minds, there is always a running dichotomy and contradiction in the practical implementation of the religious laws and edicts relating to socio-economic, state affairs or to jurisprudence.

For instance the punishments in the Islamic justice system seem to be barbaric and redundant. These being of tribal nature, enshrine summary trials and on the spot executions. The punishments like slaughtering the felons, beheading or chopping of limbs even for small felonies, would be too barbaric to be accepted in the modern refined societies. The cardinal point to capture is that the punishments should not be awarded as revenge but only as deterrence against crimes. Irrespective of religious edicts, a society or community can evolve its own laws to combat crimes or dispense justice.

The laws and decrees of religion that, on the face, look absurd, irrational, inhuman or impracticable or collide with the laws of the land need to be amended or discarded. That is why for reinterpreting Islamic legal system, various schools founded by Muslim jurists and theologians have been coming to the fore in the past several centuries. The four among these: Hanifites, Malikites, Shafiites and Hanbalites, are outstandingly famous. There is a provision in Islam for Ijtehad (re-interpretation) of Islamic teachings, if need be, to make them acceptable and compatible with the changing situations and times.

It is here that the fundamentalists refuse or resist any change, whatsoever, even brought about within the framework of Islam and without departing from its pristine theme or spirit. For instance Islam calls for justice but to insist that the head of the government should be called a caliphate and that he should roam in the streets of a city and award punishments on the spot is out of sync with the paradigms of modern complex and heavily populated societies. This is the true picture for dispensation of Islamic justice that the fundamentalists harbor in their minds. The fundamentalism, therefore, spurs controversy. The controversy comes up because of the confusing and complicated and hard to practice religious precepts.

In my view, apart from having verbal or subjective beliefs in the fundamental teachings of the religions, like the five basic beliefs and observance of five obligations in Islam, the other laws and injunctions with regard to the governance, state, economy politics and similar subjects should be allowed to be reinterpreted by the society and state. The Muslim family laws particularly about rape is a non starter and totally discriminatory against females. The polygamy too is not looked at with approval by most of the people. There are countless such decrees and religious orders that are either redundant or militate against such reformed laws framed and synthesized by the human beings in keeping with the changing conditions. Religious laws cannot be altered. So religious fundamentalism is bound to lag behind and practically remain a failure if kept intact. Also, the sects and denominations offer their respective interpretations which further render the fundamentalism unfit as a unified code to be followed by the community as one consensual body of beliefs.

Talking about other isms, the fact is that unlike religious tenets, these doctrines were not founded by individuals or apostles, nor were these established or imposed in the name of an almighty divine power. The nature of these isms is not static or rigid and is subject to change. After the First World War, the orthodox form of communism was practiced in several communist countries but was gradually either abandoned or amended. We cannot empathically claim that the existing models of communism in vogue in China, Russian, Cuba or Venezuela are cut and dried systems devised by Carl Marx or other thinkers. Let us correct ourselves that Carl Marx’s “Das Capitol” is neither a scripture nor the starting point for communism or socialism. There is a trail of thinkers and social scientists even before him who had been writing on these new doctrines. These are purely systems and not religious creed that cannot change. As such these philosophies were of progressive nature and not of rigidly fundamental import.

The argument that since all these new philosophical movements and intellectual or socio-economic theories embody certain basic themes and ideas, these also carry the color of fundamentalism, is patently spurious. The capitalism too has been undergoing changes and of late we can see that even in the western capitalist countries there was a mix of the best of both capitalism and socialism. In China too, fundamentally a communist country, has markedly departed from the strait jackets of communism. There is unimaginable investment from the capitalist entrepreneurs in China. The barriers between different economic and social systems are gradually vanishing as the world is moving towards becoming a global village.

The intellectual output of Greek philosophers namely, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, among others, though being from the bygone times is still progressive in contents because these form a basis on which the option of heaping more knowledge and refinement is always open.

There has been a mammoth intellectual debate going on for centuries on their applicability in the changing times. There have been modifications and there have been consensus on these. But the difference between this kind of fundamentalism and that of religious is that while intellectual knowledge is always subject to modifications, the religious discourses brook no inquiry, questioning or rebuttals.

Secularism may not be treated as fundamental as religion is. Rather it is placed on the other side of the fence. Secularism has no starting point nor does it have a founder or scriptural background or divine authority. It was there when the era of religions has not yet started. It resides in human mind and is therefore of permanent nature. It assumes the role of a contender of religion when religion subjects the freedom of thought and daily life to fixed rules. Secularism aims at liberating the human mind, social life, politics and state from the influence or control of religion. A man can be both secular and religious provided he is not a bigot or who doesn’t blindly follow the religious edicts. Despite having a religion he keeps his options open for respecting all religions or sidetracking all of them.

The secularism cannot have the touch of fundamentalism because like religion it does not restrict or forbid someone in the name of divine authority or a spiritual code to remain within its ambit or else face the fearful consequences. There is no heresy or apostasy in secularism to be punished with death. The outstanding Muslim philosopher Ibne Rushd postulated separation of religion and philosophy which clears indicates his secular mind. Ibne Bajja (Avempace) advocated the separation of religious truths from the intellectual truths because of the incompatibility between them. Although these thinkers were Muslims by faith, yet by virtue of their philosophy, they were seculars as well. Again the essential difference between a fundamental religionist and a secularist is that while the former is bound to remain rigid the latter can alter or abandon his religious convictions.

Except the British writer George Holyoake who used the term secular for the first time in 1851, there is no other historical evidence that suggest that it was started by a certain individual or group as a movement like a religion. That certainly obviates it from being categorized under fundamentalism. The definition of secularism as given in Wikipedia is so apt. It says, “In its most prominent form, secularism is critical of religious orthodoxy and asserts that religion impedes human progress because of its focus on superstition and dogma rather than on reason and the scientific method”

Finally, let us now move our attention to atheism, which certainly is the antithesis of religion. Religions are mostly anchored on the belief in an all powerful divine authority or a universal soul. Atheism while negates the existence of God or such divine super power, it does not wholly discard the religion in its secular or social dimensions. It may look odd to so many but the atheist cannot make themselves ideally aloof from the religious rituals that encompass human chores and daily life. Atheism does not have a history or a founder.

Like secularism it is born and lives in the human minds that reflect on such aspects as universe, God, creation and existence. The theory of evolution laid the first corner stone for man to ponder over the creation of this magnificent universe without a creator. Such queries come to the mind because of the unsatisfactory, irrational and flimsy explanations dished out by the religions regarding these issues. While the three Abrahamic religions believe in an omnipotent power as the creator, the other religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto etc, offer complex and incredible mythological fables for the creation of world, the life after death and salvation etc. So naturally God’s real nature and identity becomes hazy and it is here that the belief in God starts faltering. Otherwise, God has never, directly and without the help of apostles, clarified his own being or certified if religions were from him or not.

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