When Scriptures Are Worshiped…

August 16, 2015

hereticWhen scriptures are worshiped all hell can break loose —although with the imprimatur of God. Religion has, historically, cut a bloody swath wherever it found infidels —Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and so on are all susceptible to and guilty of the abrogation of reason for the sake of some holy writing. For a compelling look at a contemporary, extreme case of this, (one that, like the Christian and other religious Inquisitions, spread fear, hate, war and death) read these few paragraphs from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Heretic.

When absolute unreason infects the human mind religion is frequently somehow involved.

REASON AND THE QU’RAN —excerpt from “Heretic” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

If Muhammad and the Qur’an are providing justifications for so much wrongdoing in the world, then it must be in more than scholarly interest to apply the tools of reason to both Prophet and text. The problem is that Islamic scholars arguing in favor of human reason have long been on the losing end of doctrinal conflicts. When rationalists squared off against literalists during the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, they lost. The rationalists wanted to include in Islamic doctrine only principles based on reason. The traditionalists countered that human intellect is “defective, fickle, and malleable.”

Changing central aspects of Islamic doctrine became even more difficult in the tenth century. At that time, jurists of the various schools of law decided that all essential questions had been settled and that permitting any new interpretations would not be productive. This famous episode is referred to as the closing of “the gates of ijtihad.” The gates of reinterpretation were not suddenly slammed shut: it was a gradual process. But once shut, they proved impossible to reopen. The late Christina Phelps Harris of Stanford University summarized the impact as creating “a framework of inexorable legal rigidity.”

In this process a key role was played by the imam Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali, who died in AD 1111. Al-Ghazali detested the ancient Greek philosophers. He regarded human reason as a cancer upon Islam. His most famous work is Incoherence of the Philosophers, which attacks and refutes the claims of the ancients. Against their pretensions, al-Ghazali posits and all-knowing God. Allah knows the smallest particle in heaven and on earth. And because Allah knows everything and is responsible for everything, he already knows and has finally formed every part of the world and every action, from whether and arrow reaches its target or whether a hand is waved. Thus, al-Ghazali writes, “Blind obedience to God is the best evidence of our Islam.” Those, such as Andalusian scholar Ibn Rushd, who disagreed with al-Ghazali found themselves exiled, or worse.

Nine hundred years have passed, and yet al-Ghazali is still considered by many in Islam to be second only to Muhammad. He provided the standard answer to almost any question posed in Arabic: “Inshallah,” meaning “If Allah wills it” or “God willing.” The latest flowering of al-Ghazali’s concepts can be found today in the teaching of groups such as Boko Haram (whose very name means “Non-Islamic teaching is forbidden”), Islamic State (ISIS, IS, ISIL, SIC, Da’ish), and the Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiya. They adhere to the principle of “al-fikr kufr,” that the very act of thinking (and along with thinking, education, reason, and knowledge) makes one an infidel (kufr). Or as Taliban religious police have written on the propaganda placards: “Throw reason to the dogs—it stinks of corruption.”

There is in fact no good reason al-Ghazali and his ilk should have the last word in defining Islam. Muslims around the world cannot go on claiming that “true” Islam has somehow been “hijacked” by groups of extremists. Instead they must acknowledge that inducements to violence lie at the root of their own most sacred texts, and take responsibility for actively redefining their faith.

The crucial first step in the process of modification will be to acknowledge the humanity of the Prophet himself and the role of human beings in creating Islam’s sacred texts. When Muslims tell us that the Qu’ran is the immutable and unchanging word of God, that it is entirely consistent and infallible, and that none of its injunctions and commandments can be treated as in any way optional for true believers, we need to retort that, by the lights of scholarship and science, this is simply not the case. In truth, Islamic doctrine is adaptable; certain parts of the Qu’ran were abrogated over time. So there is no reason to insist that the militant verses of the Medina period should always be given priority. If Muslims wish their religion to be a religion of peace, all they have to do is “abrogate” those Medina verses. Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, who was executed in 1985 for “apostasy” in Sudan, proposed to do just that.

The next step in dismantling the ideological foundation of Islamist violence will be to persuade Muslims raised on an alluring vision of the afterlife to embrace life in this world, rather than actively seeking death as a path to the next.


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