Islam & modernism

29 Aug 2014


The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.
The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.

THERE are many examples of questionable traditions and interpretations of Quranic verses offered by obliging divines. In such conditions it is the duty of individuals with conscience and sensitivity to truth, to try and distinguish between wheat and chaff.

It is a right which Islam has given to all — the right of personal interpretation. The need for thinking in depth (fikr) as well as in breadth (dhikr) has been stressed in the Quran.

There have been many forces and agencies in history — social, political, economic, philosophical and religious — which have attempted to cripple human intelligence in order to exploit men either for vested interests of the self or of persons in power.

Take, for instance, the despicable drama in Nigeria where some 200 schoolgirls were taken captive in April by the extremist militant group Boko Haram, reportedly to be sold as slaves. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, declared that he had abducted the girls and will continue to do so. “By Allah I will sell them in the marketplace,” he boasted.

Islam does not reject science and rationalism.

What is one to make of such religious interpretations by extremists when the Quran unequivocally declares “Read in the name of your Lord, Who created man from a clot of congealed blood. Read! And Your Lord is the Most Generous Who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know”. (Surah Alaq). In the same spirit is the hadith of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) that urges believers “to go to China [then a remote destination] to gain knowledge” if necessary.

Boko Haram is of the opinion that Western education is evil. It is mystifying how acquiring knowledge and education in any language or about any culture can be ‘evil’. One reason for the contradiction is that religious leaders have attached less importance to the essentials such as faith in God and the eternal moral code and given more importance to accidental features and later accretions, in which they radically differed.

Narrow-mindedness of the clergy was also faced by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who is considered the first Muslim voice of reform in India. He appeared on the scene at a time when Muslim society was sunk in obscurantism and inertia and showed no desire to emerge out of its medieval grooves. The unwholesome influence of the clergy had made Muslims of the time view education as hostile to religion.

Syed Ahmed Khan wrote: “I reflected on the decadence of the Muslim community and came to the conclusion that modern education alone is the remedy of the ills they suffer from. I decided on a strategy to disabuse their minds of strong communal belief that the study of European literature and science is anti-religion and promotes disbelief.”

The objectives of Sir Syed were educational and social reform and he did not wish to dabble in matters of religion. In fact, conscious of clerical hostility, he offered not to have any role in religious curriculum in his college and invited leading clerics to do the needful.

But the maulvis of Deoband shot down the proposal and reportedly said they would not associate themselves with an educational institution that had Shia students on its rolls. In his biography of Sir Syed, Altaf Husain Hali wrote that 60 maulvis and alims signed a fatwa accusing Sir Syed of disbelief and apostasy.

But even as voices of clerical hostility rose from Kanpur and Lucknow, Agra and Allahabad, Rampur and Bareilly and Maulvi Ali Baksh travelled to Makkah and Madina to seek a fatwa for beheading the great educationist and social reformer, he continued in his mission of setting up a college. “For,” wrote he, “my heart is overflowing with the idea of welfare of my people in which there is no room for any anger or rancour.” History proved that Sir Syed, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, was right and the clergy utterly wrong.

Has Islam come in the way of modernisation? I venture to suggest that there is no inherent conflict between Islam and modernism. Neither science nor rationalism has ever been rejected by Islam. As a matter of fact, as modernism seeks social and economic justice it is working in the direction that Islam has always favoured.

There is nothing in Islam or in Muslim history to suggest that it is averse to change. In fact, the ease and confidence with which Muslims adapted themselves to new conditions which they found in the countries that came under their sway shows that they do possess adaptability.

Present-day Muslim scholars should present Islam in a way that stresses the universality of its values, the tolerance of its outlook and the compassion of its thoughts, so that the faith is not associated with a hostile approach and taking irretrievable positions.

The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2014