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Intellectual discourse on Islam

Maryam Sakeenah
The righteous rage that boils over into mob lynching, suspicions and allegations of blasphemy shows a loss of rationality in our social behaviour. This is a disturbing fact that needs a serious collective introspection. Among other things, a lot of this self-righteous rage is because of our inability and unwillingness as a society to intellectually confront and address diversity, difference and dissenting opinions. The religious discourse in our society is largely anti-intellectual to the extent that even an intellectual approach to religion is sneered at as deviant, threatening and disrespectful. This anti-intellectual discourse is asserted by wielding power and instilling fear by religious leaders, and the use of threat and violence by those who lack the privilege of religious authority.The decadence of religious discourse in this part of the world is rooted in the colonial past when the prestigious madrassa was systematically marginalised and disempowered as a part of the colonial education policy of ‘schooling the world.’ The cornered madrassa took refuge behind a protectionist insecure religious discourse, trying to hold on in a rapidly changing milieu. In an attempt at self-preservation, this defensive discourse refused to engage and became airtight and obscurantist. This still characterises the madrassah and those who emerge from the system: a stubborn refusal to intellectually engage with alternative discourses that the modern world is teeming with. But we cannot insulate our youth from the tide of intellectual assault from modern ideas and new patterns of thinking. There will be questions raised, and our refusal to engage or even bother with articulating responses will alienate thinking minds.It is already happening at an ever-increasing rate. As a teacher on Islam, I have observed an increasing trend of scepticism among young people exposed to the kind of heavily westernised modern education we have at private urban educational institutions. A lot of questions are raised as they encounter diverse patterns of thought. Unfortunately, answers through religion are often not available, and even questioning is often put down as impertinent. This produces a disenchantment with a faith that is unable to address critical and vital questions of the day. It is these disenchanted bright minds that possess the social and cultural capital to make up the pool that supplies the academia, the media and the bureaucracy with the fresh human resource. Hence this early scepticism which hardens into a strident secularism filters into institutions of state and society to be systematically wielded and exerted with power. At the other end, this systematic empowerment of the secularised and socially privileged lot breeds frustrated rage in the conservative minds.
The conservative mind is fiercely anti-intellectual. This anti-intellectualism takes any intellectual challenge as an audacious insult, a ‘conspiracy against Islam’ – making violence the only ‘language’ to respond with.

These developments are ominous, and the cracks and gashes are already cutting across our society, letting the red hot lava boil over. Unfortunately, only a few are cognizant of this, and even fewer are conscious of our responsibility to stem the process in our capacities. Any calls for a progressive Islamic discourse are put down with suspicion of hidden agendas. The truth is, developing a modern intellectual and philosophical Islamic discourse and mainstreaming it is nobody’s agenda but Islam’s own need. In fact, Islam has had progressive thinkers throughout its history.

In more open societies in the West, Muslim communities have no option but to engage and adapt. Hence one sees an increasing realisation of the need to come up with an intellectually robust spirituality that does not cave in or go berserk on an encounter with difference. Thinkers and scholars like Tariq Ramadan, Yasir Qadhi, Omar Suleiman and Hamza Yusuf among others are rising to the intellectual challenge Islam is faced with. Their fidelity to Islamic fundamentalists and tradition makes their progressive voices credible and authentic.

An intellectual discourse on Islam should not be polemical but dialectical. It should be guided by Islamic tradition yet fully cognisant of influential modern and postmodern ideas. It should reflect an awareness of and respect for the diversity and pluralism within Islam and outside of Islam. It should engage in a modern ijtihad with the traditional tools of Muslim jurisprudence to address contemporary issues like homosexuality and the reconstruction of gender, new atheism, and militant Islamism among others. Such a project must use the approach most familiar to the modern mind. This will bring two great benefits: firstly, rescuing the sceptical modern Muslim mind from disenchantment by addressing critical questions. Secondly, mainstreaming an intellectual, religious discourse which respects diversity and demonstrates to the mass Muslim mind that difference can be lived and engaged with intellectually.

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