May 5, 2014 By Ziauddin Sardar

A Platform to Go Critical


How and why was the Critical Muslim Launched? An explanation

Muslims have an aversion to criticism. Many believe that ‘their Islam’, whatever variety it happens to be, is perfect and above criticism. They believe that all questions of importance have already been answered by the great jurists of history. Muslims just have to believe and follow what the ulama tell them, without criticism and comment. Even if what they are being told is patently ridiculous, or clearly unjust and unethical, as long as it comes from a religious authority it is perfect and correct.

But unless we are critical, that is have a critical consciousness, and asks questions about our faith, we are little more than blind followers, sheep herded by obscurantist religious leaders. And, not infrequently, led into nefarious directions. This unfortunately is the condition of the Muslim ummah today, the nexus of our current predicaments.

Of course, it was not always so.
Criticism has been central to Islam from its inception. The Qur’an says that belief cannot be forced and it describes those who follow faith blindly as ‘cattle’ unable to understand, see or hear. It repeatedly urges Muslims to think and reflect, observe and measure, travel and write, ask questions and criticise. The life of Prophet Muhammad reveals that he was constantly questioned by his companions, and engaged in constant dialogue and discussion. In later years, the scholarship that evolved around collecting the traditions and sayings of the Prophet was itself based on what today we would call peer-review. Indeed, it was this critical spirit that catalysed achievements in science, art and architecture, literature and music. These achievements happened because practitioners were at home debating and arguing, criticising and accepting criticism.

There are numerous reasons why this critical spirit is now harder to find. In the classical Islamic period, heterodoxy was often encouraged if not tolerated by the state, either openly or tacitly, which allowed contrarian views to be aired without fear of retribution. But in contemporary times, states often impose a particular theology on its people. In the classical period, the religious scholars actively engaged in ijtihad, debated with each other, and took criticism on board before stating their opinions. But over the centuries, religious scholars too developed an aversion to criticism and actively suppressed all dissent.

This lack of support for the right to critical thought, over the centuries, has allowed singular views of Islam to dominate and go unchallenged. As a consequence, Muslims stubbornly hold on to opinions – for example, about women, minorities, family law, crime and punishment and philosophy – that have long passed their ‘sell by’ date. These views have contributed to misogyny, bigoted, extremism, sectarianism and violence that plagues so many Muslim societies. Moreover, Muslims have been reduced to ciphers – incapable of generating new and original ideas.

Nowadays, our aversion to criticism stems from two basic elements of our outlook. First, we have an idealised notion of Islam. Not just that Islam is ideal and perfect but it also has answers to all human problems. Our sources are flawless, our classical jurists are faultless, our history is impeccable. We seem to be unconcerned about the fact that our sources are riddled with contradictions, the classical jurists got so many things seriously wrong, and that so much of our history, like all human histories, is full of violence and bigotry. Even the three out of four ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’ were murdered! The blatant fact that we don’t even know how to ask questions, let alone provide answers to complex contemporary problems seems to make no difference.

Second, we fear getting things wrong. We fear making mistakes in matter of faith and belief, which are seen as paramount. But to err is human and there is no defence, no security blanket that can insulate us against our natural condition – indeed creating such an insulating device is the most devastating error of all. Because we fear we may get things wrong, or do not know enough to make a decision, we never actually get to know.  Instead, we accept as Islamic knowledge what we are told, what we were always told, even if the age old interpretations and glosses are now superfluous, fossilised, obscurantist, and make no sense whatsoever in the complex realities of modern lives.

There are other ways of knowing and approaching the basic sources – which do not render all traditional knowledge irrelevant – but which can help us to appreciate and discern what is valuable and worthwhile from what is outmoded. We fear challenging authority because that delinks us from tradition. This is the most scurrilous position of all since it amounts to a lack of faith in the capacity of Islam to inspire us and provide contemporary solutions.

In my travels, I have met countless scholars, thinkers, writers and activists, young and not-so-young, who are frustrated with this state of affairs. They are angry that Islam has been hijacked by extremists, frustrated with absurd fatwas coming from Saudi Arabia, Iran and religious seminaries in India and Pakistan, they are impatient for change and reform, and eager to make their own contributions. But they often find themselves in isolation; and fear expressing their views openly.

The quarterly Critical Muslim, which I launched in January 2012 with the novelists Robin Yassin Kassab and Aamer Hussein and journalists Ehsan Masood and Samia Rahman, is specifically designed as a platform for the ideas and work of this group. The project is based on the premise that a more pluralist future for Islam depends on looking at its history, tradition, legacy, theology, societies and cultures, critically. Another aim is to transform the isolated individuals into a worldwide network, working to produce a modicum of critical thought that serves as a catalyst for positive change.

What do we mean by critical? We are not critical of Islam per se. Rather we look at Islam critically. We aim to inculcate a mindset encouraged by the Qur’an when it urges us to think, reason and ask questions. Our accountability before God is individual; and we are personally and individually responsible for our thoughts as much as our actions. No authority can fulfil our responsibility on our behalf. On the Day of Judgement we shall stand alone in front of Creator. Therefore, we must shoulder the responsibility of thinking about what it means to be a Muslim in the twenty-first century for ourselves.

It should be evident that we do not recognise the authority of religious scholars at a loss with the modern world and too often giving respectability to prejudice, bigotry, xenophobia, and social and cultural malpractices. Neither do we understand ‘Islam’ as a set of pieties and taboos. We do not label Muslims, whether they define their identity religiously or culturally and regard themselves as pious, conservatives, traditionalist, secular, liberal, or socialists. Rather, we embrace the diversity of contemporary Islam in all its mindboggling complexity. However, we challenge all interpretations of Islam: traditionalist, modernist, fundamentalist and apologetic to develop new readings with the potential for social, cultural and political transformation of the Muslim world. For us Islam is a worldview, a way of critically engaging and shaping the world.

We are critical in the sense of being sceptical of received ideas. Knowledge is provisional and dependents on evidence. But we are also critical in another sense: we recognise that knowledge and its interpretation have a politics too. Critical Muslim is therefore equally critical of unchecked power and authority wherever it is comes from – Islam or the West. It is critical of the nationalism in our production of knowledge. It is critical of the desire of the leaders of larger nations to dominate smaller ones, and critical of the way in which global mass media represents peoples and cultures from outside. But we do not see Islam and the West as two fuming bulls in a china-shop but as interdependent worldviews and cultures. We look at both critically and seek to synthesise what is best in both.

Positive change requires a multi-generational effort. It is my hope that Critical Muslim will equip generations of Muslims everywhere with critical thought, embracing humanism and pluralism, thereby solving the pressing social and cultural problems of their societies.

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