Is Islam a “reasonable” belief?
The following is part of the transcript to a talk delivered last year at an event in Melbourne titled “Is Islam a reasonable belief?”.
[Shafiul Huq speaking]
The question we want to address tonight is not merely a theoretical question that a bunch of (radical) uni students happens to feel curious about.
Rather this question seems to have a very widespread appeal, especially in this particular historical moment – in the era of science and reason.
Pope Benedict, in his Regensburg lecture in 2006, reminded the world how Islam, as opposed to Western Christianity, has fallen utterly short of reconciling faith with reason, and hence Muslims needed to resort to violence.
He quotes the words of a Byzantine emperor in his lecture:
“Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Then the Pope says:
“The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.”
Notwithstanding the bloody history of the Crusades, and notwithstanding the War on Terror, the concept of Jihad, is all of a sudden unreasonable, irrational. Hence Muslims have not been able to reconcile reason and faith. Even former [Australian] Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in an interview once that Islam needs a reformation. Therefore, this question of faith and reason seems to be an important one that Islam and Muslims seem to be measured against.
But before we answer this question, let me highlight to you a contradiction that is embedded within the question itself.
“Is Islam a reasonable belief?”
But how can belief be reasonable?
Isn’t that a contradiction of terms?
Weren’t reason and belief torn apart from each other a few centuries ago in Enlightenment Europe, with the emergence of secularism?
Weren’t belief and reason deemed to exist in two separate realms? In two separate spheres?
Don’t faith & belief belong in the so-called “private” realm, manifesting in the individual believer’s personal relation with God?
Don’t science and reason belong in the so-called “public” realm, manifesting politically in the form of the secular state?
And now we ask, or rather, we are asked if Islam is reasonable. The answer to this question was resolved centuries back in the West. The story that the West has told the world, especially the Muslim world, is that “belief and reason are two different things.”
If belief is reasonable, if it is scientific, it is no longer belief.
And if reason is merely believable – something to be had faith in – it is no longer reason.
Belief relates to one’s private inner dimension. Just one’s personal relation with God.
And reason relates to the basis upon which state and public institutions are founded.
Then why ask the question if “Islam is a reasonable belief”?
Why must Islam be at once relegated to the private realm as a matter of personal belief, yet be expected to meet the demands of a secular public rationality?
Then, why the urge to either vindicate Islam through reason, or refute Islam through reason?
I think the answer lies in the fact that the arbitrary line drawn between reason and faith, in the form of secularism, is in itself a make-believe.
There is nothing natural about this faith/reason divide.
And, moreover, there is nothing scientific even in claiming a divide between reason and faith.
It is, plain and simple, an ethical claim.
A statement of belief!
Therefore, Secularism becomes the new belief.
It is the new religion.
And it is not only the new religion, but it also seems to be the new definition of reason.
The way many of us, including many Muslims, understand reason today is nothing but a conflation of reason with secular liberalism. Whatever belief or idea conforms to liberal ideals, is branded with the label of “reason” and “science”. Whatever belief, idea, or way of life, cannot be made sense of through a liberal prism – is merely “blind-faith”, “irrational belief”, “utter backwardness” in need of “modernisation”.
And Islam is a classic example of this. Islam does not make sense to the liberal mind. If it is to make sense, then Islam essentially has to be liberalised, secularised.
And I think the point I’m making should be obvious to all because we see it all the time. Muslims are constantly having to justify their position on:
- Women’s dress
- Shari’ah law
- Halal slaughter
And a whole range of other issues.
Just take the hijab issue for example.
How do we as Muslims justify the hijab to the wider society?
I’ve heard Muslims say it is the Muslim woman’s personal choice. I’ve heard Muslims say it is an act of resistance against consumerism and commodification of women’s bodies. I’ve even heard someone say that the hijab is a feminist statement!
Without discussing the validity or otherwise of those responses, I’d like to ask, are those really the reasons why our sisters wear hijab?
At the most fundamental level, Muslim women wear hijab out of submission to Allah’s command. It is an act of obedience… that’s it.
We don’t see the hijab as an issue of individual freedom or repression. Those are Western lenses brought to bear upon an Islamic hukm. Yet many of us resort to that language precisely because we want to make sense to a Western audience.
We want to make Islam reasonable.
So when we ask the question “Is Islam a reasonable belief?”, what we really mean, especially in a Western context, is this —
“Is Islam a liberalisable, secularisable, modernisable belief?” (Quite a tongue-twister!)
Yes, you can very conveniently interchange and substitute “reason” for liberalism, secularism and modernity and the question, surprisingly, will still maintain its original meaning and connotation.
And if “reasoning” Islam has essentially come to mean “secularising” Islam, then we should ask the question, is there any value in trying to reason Islam?
If Islam is that which cannot be made sense of in a secular liberal framework, then wouldn’t you rather keep Islam that way?
If nothing else, then at the very least, Islam represents a challenge to the boundaries of thought in this society.
It represents the possibility of imagining the world and humanity differently, as long as Islam remains that which cannot be made sense of within a liberal paradigm.
So, if reason is conflated with liberal norms, I’m not sure if it is in our best interest to “reason” Islam, in the secular sense of the word.
However, having said all of that, I would like to avoid one fatal error. Just to rescue Islam from liberalism, I do not want to turn it into some form of postmodern relativism. I don’t want to kill off “reason” altogether. Because Islam does not allow me to. But in order to understand the role of reason within Islam, we need to conceptualise reason differently.
Firstly, we must let go of the falsely created dichotomy between reason and faith. In fact, the role of reason is to arrive at faith. And it is faith that gives reason its purpose. And that is what gives reason it’s nobility and its high status within Islam.
Imam Ghazali, referring to some Sufis who disparaged reason and the intellect, writes these beautiful lines in his Ihya:
“Could it be imagined however, that the light of the insight, through which God is known and the truthfulness of His Apostle is recognised, will ever be disparaged or belittled when God Himself praised it? And if it were disparaged what other thing could be praised? But if the praiseworthy knowledge be the law, by what is its truth known? If it were known through the blameworthy and unreliable intellect, then the law itself is blameworthy.”
Reason does have a role in Islam. And it has its limits.
Shafiul Huq is a Melbourne-based activist. He is also a student of Classical Arabic and Cultural Studies.
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