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July 28, 1997


Farzana Versey

Pramod's illustration

The Islamic Pilgrim's Progress

It's such a funny situation. Some years ago, people found me terribly liberal whenever I made a critical appraisal of Islam. Today, if I say something in its favour, they brand me regressive or a closet fanatic!

There is a mistaken notion that every believer in Islam is blind to its flaws. Way back in 1948, Sheikh Muhammad Ashraf published a journal called The Islamic Literature, which listed, among its objectives, a need to find a new interpretation of Islam to fit the changed conditions prevailing then. The social conditions and mores the prophet had to deal with then were primitive.

Tied as the religion is to a single source -- the holy book -- it is an easy target. Every time it is sought to be evaluated, its authority gets diminished for it is invariably evaluated on the basis of the Shariat. However, in 1951, Jordan brought in a legislation ostensibly based on the Ottoman Law of Family Rights which set down many changes, especially regarding divorce. According to it, a woman can stipulate in her marriage contract that she has the right to divorce her husband; he, on the other hand, might be permitted to utter the word talaq, but on three separate occasions.

Besides this, reformers within the community have raised important questions -- when the text lays down certain commandments, do they mean, "You shall (not) or you may (not)? Are they matters of conscience which will be tried in heaven, or are they subject to the action of an earthly court? How far is a divine ordinance binding when the conditions under which it was promulgated have passed away?"

For the purpose of discussion, we may voice aloud Koenraad Elst's apprehensions: "Reason is bound to defeat Islam." All belief systems do not depend on systematisation, but on belief. What Kierkegaard said about Christianity's appeal lying in it being transempirical and untestable could as well apply to Islam or any other religion.

What makes Islam's position peculiar is that it cannot cope with the essential duality of the sacred and the profane within its ambit, unlike other religions. One reason for this, seen purely from the sociological perspective, is the painstaking attempt by academicians to demarcate Islamic fundamentalism from Islamic revivalism.

There is no complementary attempt to make a distinction between Islam and the Muslim although, even according to the Koran, the Muslims are not a unified body of people: "Those believers who sit at home are not equal to those who fight in the way of God with their goods and their persons."

To understand how revivalism and fundamentalism feed each other, one will have to find an analogy in the recent attempts. The Hindu revival is entirely the handiwork of a few fundamentalists. Leave alone trying to judge by the cannons of reason, neither concept even appeals to collective reason for religion, per se, has ceased to be a team game. It takes a fundamentalist to revive the spirit.

Ironically, a dissenter works as well. He appeals to the believer in every common man. His strides in individualism necessarily need to find echo in the individuation of his religion. Islam stands alone and, despite its so-called primitiveness, poses a threat both to the West and to societies where its followers form a substantial minority.

Consequently, whenever the Muslim has felt threatened, he has used his religion as a shield and, sometimes, as a front to camouflage his personal insecurities.

The simplicity, and no doubt simplistic interpretations, of Islam is made difficult by analyses that set out to create a specter. This only whets the appetite of the Muslim who feels that, at last, he has something to defend.

The survival of Islam depends, to a large degree, on the need for others to want to judge it and of its believers to not want to do so.

Illustration: Pramod

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Farzana Versey