Ali Raihan, New Age Islam
Every time the ISIS explodes a bomb killing and maiming people or beheads priceless statues of antiquity, there is chorus of opinion to tell us that what they are doing is antithetical to Islamic precepts and teachings. We are told that real or true Islam teaches love and tolerance, not the bigotry which is symptomatic groups like ISIS. We are told that ISIS is lending a bad name to Islam or that it is using the name of Islam to further its narrow sectarian and un-Islamic purposes.
And yet for the ISIS, each one of its acts is dictated by a desire to be seen as truly Islamic in the eyes of wider Muslim community. Its acts of beheading the ‘infidels’, taking of sex slaves and its treatment of women are all justified in the name of Islam. This means that within the epistemological arsenal of Islam, there are justifications for such acts for the ISIS quotes scriptures to justify their acts and practices. As it is becoming increasingly apparent, there is much acceptance of this Islamic justification within a section of Muslims otherwise it would be hard to understand the attraction of their so called caliphate which is making Muslim youth travel to this caliphate from far of places ranging from Europe, the Caucasus to South Asia.
So how does one understand what is the nature of true Islam? Is it the Islam of the ISIS or is it the Islam of those who condemn it as un-Islamic?This goes to the heart of the problem of defining Islam. Assuming that Islam has a core set of values which is inherently peaceful or inherently violent does not solve the problem but rather ends up essentializing Islam. Thus calling ISIS as the true representatives of Islam or calling them fanatics who are out to distort the basic teachings of Islam are two sides of the same coin. Methodologically, both participate in imputing certain essential features to Islam.
A closer look at the history of Islamic practices would reveal that Islam, like any other religion, has been context specific and that the search for a core of Islam has in fact been a later anxiety on the part of the believers. Islam has at times made calls for peace with other religions but at times has also been at war with them. It is as true of Islam that it ordained at one time that slaves should be treated with kindness and mercy but it nevertheless permitted the taking of slaves. Similarly it is true that Islam gave women rights of property when other religions were treating women as chattel but it is also true that Islam put certain restrictions on them which made them relatively immobile and invisible. To fix a core to Islam then is about specifically choosing what would form part of that core. For radicals and moderates within Islam then, the core is a subjectively defined area wherein they choose what parts to highlight to fit in their conception of an Islamic core. This Islamic truth therefore is not the whole Islam but only a part of it, which exists to suite the ideological moorings of the political programs to which moderates and radical Muslims are linked to.
It is better to understand Islam as a congeries of relations, the privileging of any part of Islam therefore becomes a political project within a given specific location. This perspective engages us to talk of Islam in the plural as if there were many islams rather than in a mono-cultural and singular fashion as most of do. The other thing which becomes apparent when we take this approach is not to necessarily define Islam as progressive or conservative but to see it as amenable to different pulls and pressures like any other institution of society. Also this sensitizes us to make history as the only reliable guide against which religions, including Islam have to be judged. Thus instead of re-defining Islam in the context of the present, the attempt should be to have the present as the benchmark against which Islam needs to be framed and judged. What is important in this historical rendering is the certitude of rationalism, progress and enlightenment. This would mean that we need to have certain root metaphors of all societies: all institutions, including Islam have to be judged in accordance with these root metaphors. For example if the root metaphor of any society is equality, then it needs to asked whether Islam or some aspects of it promote equality or not. If the answer is negative, then there is a need to question those aspects of Islam which impede the attainment of equality understood in the broadest possible sense.
Islam need not be attuned to the normative demands of modernity for there will always interpretations from the epistemological pluralism of Islam which will contest this view. Rather the normative present should become the standard against which Islam should be judged. There was a time when Islam became the normative standard against which all other social formations and practices were judged. Over the years however, this dynamism of Islam got lost and it became ossified into a fixed frozen entity. Reclaiming this dynamism should be one of the first tasks of Muslims today and it cannot be done without wrestling with the present. Only through this approach can we give a fitting response to groups like ISIS which are claiming to be the representatives of so called ‘true’ Islam.
Ali Raihan is a Delhi based writer