Monday, 3 October 2016

RELIGION: What can make Islam sustainable for the future?

Islam doesn’t need a reformer. Islam also doesn’t need an Age of Enlightenment. Those who make such demands or appeals on the Muslim community, in the belief that these two key movements characterize the path towards the higher ground on which our Western World stands as result, are grasping for nonexistent straws.

Islam has enough of these two things in its current form. The religious Schism in the West brought about a hundred years of war, devastation, and famine across an entire continent – something that nobody could wish for in this day and age. Also, Islam today isn’t plagued by the same problem as the Christians of the Middle Ages, who were bossed around by a exuberant church hierarchy, but rather there is something missing in its fundamental structure, just like in Christianity, which is something modern church critics tried to resolve.

Who in Islam has the final say about doctrine? Which theologian, which magisterial authority? The longing for a benevolent caliph to rule over all the faithful may come out of this absence of a person at the top of the spiritual hierarchy. Aside from the wrath of ISIS, which certainly does not reflect the goodwill of a benevolent God, the desire for unity in faith is manifested in the idea of a central figure. It is a pious hope on the part of the believers to think that all Muslims may one day sit under one roof, just like the Christians of the ecumenical movement sought to unify their religion.

Now on to our notions of Enlightenment: it isn’t something that comes in a soup packet, bought off the supermarket shelf, added to hot water, stirred until it’s done. Enlightenment is a process, not a fixed state. Every generation must learn the principles of the Enlightenment anew, just as every generation must learn about the principles of democracy and tolerance anew. Also, here in the West, we’re not as enlightened as we may think; if, in a continent like Europe books about “angels” sell like hotcakes, one who makes public statements professing their skepticism of religious ideas like, for example, the resurrection of Christ from the dead, can only barely conceal the truth that not all that much has changed in the continent since a time of superstitions, when Europeans believed in witches and goblins.

Given that we are ever fighting amongst ourselves, often unsuccessfully, with new interpretations of the Enlightenment, we should stop smothering Muslims with calls for “enlightenment now!” Every form of phobia, be it directed towards foreigners in general, Muslims or Jews specifically, homosexuals, transsexuals and whatever other minority appears to serve a hollow majority as a prop in a superiority fantasy, shows that the European Enlightenment in any case is not yet fully complete.

The religion of the West, Christianity, has not made it into the Modern Era due to either ''The Reformation'' or ''The Enlightenment'', but rather due to the historical-critical method of Bible interpretation. That sounds like stuff for symposia, but it must be the case: Since the late 18th century, the appropriation of the Holy Scripture through the work of past generations and with the aid of instruments and findings from the different sciences, such as archaeology and linguistics, have opened the door for new interpretations of the Christian tradition and legacy.

This process was long and painful. And in the Christian world today it also remains unfinished. Primarily there are churches and Christian communities in the United States, who due to a literal interpretation of the bible, are unwilling to synchronize the biblical account of creation with the discoveries of modern science. By the way: here all Christians are guilty by association. The statement from Pope Francis that Evolution is compatible with Christian beliefs was heralded by the uninformed press as a major breakthrough. The reporters did not bother to research that both his predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, had already said the same.

There are already Muslim theologians who are daring to operate with a historical-critical methodology, but they are still too few. We can’t fool ourselves: It is a long and painful journey. Of course today several scholars can risk the assumption, that for them the Quran appears edited in such way that the long sutras are at the beginning and the short ones are at the end. An editorial process would naturally shake the faith of the people who act on the assumption that the Holy Quran was sent down by God, in Arabic, just the way it is.

At the same time analyses of the text suggests that the Quran, unlike the books of the Bible, is the work of a single author. This would support in some way the belief that the Quran only knows one drafter, and that the unique beauty of the Quran’s language is self-contained and brought about by this (divine) author. There is, in the Islamic world, a great love for the linguistic greatness of the Quran.

There is a dispute raging in the Muslim community about the validity of faith, which not necessarily relates to the questions about God and the Heavens, but rather how Muslims should live here on earth. We, Christians, know about the depth of imbalance that such changes can bring with them – changes that can be either destructive or beneficial, paving the road for faith into the future. It is up to Muslims to read their holy text and interpret in a new light. Are we here unable to join them in this conversation, because we aren’t Muslims? No, not at all! It is our duty even, as kindred spirits of another book religion, to point to the path that has lead towards the Modern Era in the Christian world.

Aside from the historical-critical method, there is yet another means that we, in all our friendship and religious fraternity, can recommend to our Muslim brothers and sisters: a religious council. It was an encouraging sign that over 130 scholars from the Islamic world and their diaspora threw down a small bull at the altar of the self-named Caliph of the Islamic State, on which the word “Excommunication” was written in large, bold lettering. The scholars have condemned the ideology and the actions of ISIS for not being in accordance with the true teachings and tradition of Islam. The councils in the Christian world convened with similar goals: to articulate, clarify, consolidate and also protect church doctrine and the validity of their faith in a particularly trying time.

In the ancient world the Christian emperor of Rome insisted on these events, because he was fed up with the fact that Christians were splitting into smaller and smaller sects that believed in this or that. With the early ecumenical councils were the anointed heads of faith able, through argument and discourse in a theological capacity, to first formulate the doctrine. Why shouldn’t the Ummah, the world-spanning collective of the Muslim faithful, call for the same? Here we are again at the question of unity under faith, though Muslims live today from Morocco to Malaysia in vastly different environments and societal realities.

The Five Pillars of Islam may apply everywhere in the world, but the religion is, like every other religion too, more than just the sum of its commandments and restrictions, more than just the letters of its holy text. A global panel that reflects this diversity would help the Islamic community. As theologians from the Islamic world and the diaspora meet at a council, they would additionally stop the way Islam has been held hostage by politics, where it is seized in many places around the world.

The Muslims around the world today are nearer yet more estranged from one another than ever before. The prevailing denomination of Islamic Puritanism (Wahhabism), which leads to terror, violence, and Stone Age theology, also leads, as many Muslims feel, to a dead end. At the same time, the present is a great unknown and a time for fear and not for optimism about the future for many Muslims. Christianity in Europe has already gone through this process. It is for the Muslims to decide as to whether or not they wish to learn from their monotheistic brothers and sisters.

What Islam is lacking is neither Reformation nor an Enlightenment. Rather, there are two neglected measures that could make Islam sustainable for the future. The model has already been tested in the Christian world.

Prof Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert
Author

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