EditorJanuary February 2005

Is a new Enlightenment possible?

Prof. Rashid Shaz

The blind and the seeing are not alike,
Nor are the depths of the darkness and the Light,
Nor are the (chilly) shades and the (genial) heat of the sun.
(Al-Qur’an, 35: 19-21)

One of the curses of modern times is the mirage of perceptions. In a world of media generated illusions, the man is denied the right to know, to see the things as they are. And this has led us to a total un-mindfulness of the mega-crises that we live in today; the ecological threat to our planet earth and the virtual zombification of man at the hands of the capitalist monster called ‘Globalization’. The man is in chains again but this time the shekels around him are not so visible. Earlier a similar situation would have caused the arrival of God’s prophets to bestow on mankind the Light (of Revelation) enabling them to see the things as they are: اللهم أرني الأشياء كما هي

The prophets of God are endowed with an extraordinary Light and vision. Those who follow them are entrusted with a new worldview or so to say experience a paradigm shift. This journey from Darkness to Light, as the Qur’an puts it, makes the blind see and fills a dispirited soul with a new vigour of life. The hibernated human society lying low for quite sometime have witnessed time and again a renewal of life with the arrival of messengers of God. The story of Jesus as related to in the Qur’an is one such instances when a prophet of God makes the spiritually blind see and brings the spiritually dead into life. Those living on a mere material plane, unaware of noble ideals of life, undergo such a thorough transformation that they feel less linked to earth than the heaven. The Qur’an uses the parable of a bird originally made out of clay which due to a spiritual breathing into it, feels like ascending to heaven, the metaphoric abode of spiritualism. Yet at another place in Surah Al-Haj, chapter 22: verse 46, we are told that the ability to see things as they are does not depend on our mere sensory perceptions ‘for it is not the eyes that are blind but the hearts which are in their breasts’: فإنها لا تعمى الأبصار ولكن تعمى القلوب التي في الصدور

Living at a temporal distance of some fourteen centuries when the last prophet of God lived amongst us, today we may have an uncomfortable feeling that the darkness has again descended on us, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to see through the machinations of modern day media images. It is an image based perception that we so conveniently carry along with us, most of our life, that for many of us seeing is what the camera wants us to see. We go where the camera goes. We have learnt so well to rely on our mere sensory perceptions that the eyes of the heart are not in operation any more. True, there lives an Ummah amongst us that considers itself rightful heir of the last prophet and claim to uphold the Last Revelation, the cure of our blinded heart —  شفاء لما فى الصدور — but they do not want to open the book themselves and are content to look at the book through the eyes of our pious elders who are long dead and who certainly due to their ignorance of our age are incapable of telling us how to bring this Enlightenment to our context. As the Book of God remains under siege by the centuries old understanding of our Elders, the Salaf, the Ummah, as also the rest of the world, is doomed to live in darkness taking recourse to a Crusoe-like approach, waiting for a Messiah to come.

Muslims may appear to be a dispirited nation today; they are not alone in their long wait for the messiah. In fact the messiah myth has been causing more havoc in Jewish and Christian circles than anywhere else. Christianity may boast of being the biggest religion on earth today based on the number of its adherents but the fact is that for centuries Christian ideology has been on retreat. From the Catholic faith that once commanded the society to the emergence of Liberal Capitalism, Christianity has compromised a lot, to the extent that it now allows a gay priest in office. In post-Christian West, many of us are rightly pointing out, our journey towards the long cherished human ideals of liberty and freedom has eventually brought us to a situation where we find ourselves at the mercy of Fascist Liberalism. Those who once believed that a free world based on democratic ideals was in offing and that history was travelling fast towards its ultimate end were mistaken. The end of the cold war or the drawing of the iron curtain has brought to focus more of the paradoxes of Capitalism than the disparities of the totalitarian state. Now it’s no more difficult to see the inhuman face of Capitalism or what makes the US prosperous and at whose cost. The US is one third of Indian population and yet it consumes more than one third of world resources. If the Indians aspire for a similar standard of living the rest of the globe will go starving. Sensible people around the world do not support this unethical proposition. But the yoke of Fascist Liberalism is so powerful that not man alone feels helpless, the Evangelical Capitalism has even employed God to its service: ‘God bless America’.

The world is moving fast towards its extinction. There is no one to reign in the mad pursuit of Fascist Liberalism. There are some murmurs in the East, some small islands of protest but they are not so effective to pose any threat to the capitalist ideology that has in a way ‘globalized’ the planet earth. A sense of utter helplessness that once had gripped humanity in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, then in localised areas, is now prevalent at a global scale.

Nevertheless, this is only one side of the picture. Blaming others for all our woes is neither fare nor can it take us to any where. Why at all it happened that the reigns of history slipped from our hands and today now the entire world, including us, is at the mercy of Fascist Capitalism ? This is the fundamental question that we have been shying away for long and that deserve our serious and urgent attention.

This naturally takes us to another question. An Ummah essentially raised for global leadership and whose sole ratio legis was to benefit others, to provide direction and guidance to the entire mankind, how come they themselves became party to petty mundane conflicts? During the last many centuries the proponents of Islam envisioned it mainly in a language of resistance. Instead of presenting Islam to the world as a message peace and mercy and themselves as benefactor to humanity we took to the task of defending Islam. This conception of Islam in a language of resistance was a clear digression from our designated role which forced us to take a self-imposed exile from world leadership. We may boast of our selves as Ummah of the last prophet upholding the Last Revelation, yet in practical spheres we are no more at the centre-stage. Our traditional Islamic seminaries may claim of being repositories of Revelatory knowledge yet they do not have much relevance in the modern technological world. The world does not depend on us any more, instead, we depend on them. Our misconceptions about knowledge, i.e., considering the so-called Islamic sciences as sum total of knowledge, has permanently placed us on a slippery slope. Those who want to get rid of the situation and in their religious zeal want to turn the impossible into possible lack a proper methodology. As much of our religious literature and responsa of fiqh employ a language of resistance, they do tell us how to die for Islam but do not enlighten us how to live for it. Then there are those amongst us who in their search for a new dawn have taken recourse to western liberal ideals.It is difficult for them to appreciate the language of resistance while on the other hand they themselves are not capable of discovering the Quranic paradigm of mercy. Envisioning Islam as a mere political movement has also made it difficult for us to search for the missing paradigm of mercy. Islam as a political movement, so vociferously launched in our time, mainly focussed on the implementation of Shariah or a revival of life under the great fiqhi masters of the past. This only conveyed to the wider world as if Islam had nothing new to offer as Muslims were not prepared to approach the Qur’an afresh. The unmindful implementation of the Shariah (fiqh) only brought to the fore a sectarian fiqhi vision of the bygone days. In our enthusiasm for the Shariah we even did not bother to check if the great masters of the past have really embodied the Qur’anic teachings or their formulation were more influenced by their own social settings. Those who wanted to draw legitimacy from the Shariah for their autocratic governance mainly wanted to put the Shariah to their service.

The Shariah as conceived and practised by the Taliban, or as championed by the MMA in Pakistan or recently expounded by the Jama’at-e-Islami leadership during their all Pakistan convention have only convinced us the Islamic movements have yet to come out of the Abbasid era fiqhi milieu. It has not yet been possible for them to conceive Islam in other than the language of resistance or present to the wider world the message of Islam in a broader language of common good and God’s unfailing mercy. Islam, if conceived in the language of mercy, it comes to us as an abode of refuge for all those distressed and broken souls in search of solace while the language of resistance gives birth to sectarian feuds even within the House of Islam. Pakistan, Tunisia, Algeria or Egypt wherever Islamic movements have employed a language of resistance it has deeply divided the Muslim society. The Islamic movement, a twentieth century phenomenon and a result of colonial onslaughts, appears to be a finished phenomenon, though. And the same is true with the neo-Salafis, once an advocate of creative approach to Quran and Sunnah, whose dependence on IbnTaimiyah and Muhammed bin Abdulwahab have unfortunately brought them to icon worship, or as the Quran puts it, to a closed-mind set: وجدنا آبائنا الأولين

Our crisis is two-fold. While the world lives under a constant corrosion of Fascist capitalism the followers of the last prophet are engaged in fighting their own survival battle.  Despite the presence of God’s Last Revelation amongst us, our excessive dependence on the human wisdom of the past, on the interpretative works of great masters, we Muslims lack a creative and life-affirming vision of the future. Engaging with the Revelation on our own, for our specific context, is simply unthinkable even by those who otherwise go on preaching a model Islamic state. The Islamic discourse of our time which, in the words of Syed Qutub, places much emphasis on al-mantiq al-wijdani has left little scope for any rational or critical enquiry. To use a Kantian expression, this has nurtured amongst us a kind of a ‘self-imposed immaturity’ in our endeavours to engage with the Revelation. Our vision of the Revelation is that of a past experience that once had shown our way, some fourteen centuries ago. At most, this is only a part of our historical self, and not a felt experience. We look at the Qur’an as a repository of a great legacy of Light, and not as the Light itself. As a result, for last many centuries, the Ummah is on a continuous retreat, journeying backward, from Light to Darkness.

With the darkness comes a sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the future. Once the Darkness sets in, it can only be remedied by the Light of Revelation:  ذهب الله بنورهم وتركهم في ظلمت لا يبصرون. The nations devoid of Divine Light have to live in constant fear of the unknown: أو كصيب من السماء فيه ظلمت ورعد و برق. The sudden glimpse of light, instead of showing them the way, it ceases their vision: يكاد البرق يخطف أبصارهم. Apparently it makes them see for a while, and even allows little aimless drift, but once the light goes off they again come to a stand still. There can’t be a better reflection of our situation as captured in this Qur’anic parable.

The gravity of the situation demands from us that our journey backward, from Light to Darkness, is immediately put to a halt. In the past such great tasks were performed only by the prophets. But now as no prophet is about to come and the Last Revelation is like a prophet in absentia, it is for us, the followers of Mohammed, to engineer a new Enlightenment. As long as the Book of God is available amongst us and we have the guts and courage to engage ourselves with it, the possibility of a new Enlightenment cannot be ruled out.

The spiritual darkness that has gripped the entire world today is not idol worshipping or other superstitions. Instead, it is a sort of zombification of man, a casual living that has evolved due to our sheer inability to see the things as they are. The media has never been so powerful and mankind never relied so heavily on continuously bombarding visual images. Prophet Mohammed’s prayer, ‘My Lord! Show me the things as they are’ was never so badly needed. To see the things as they are demands from us that we shun all hang-ups, be they psychological, historical or religious and start depending on our mature self. This in fact needs a full-fledged Enlightenment, a Divine assistance that leaves no room for any ambiguity as promised in the Qur’an: ما فرطنا في الكتاب من شيء. However, the Book of guidance and light (فيه هدى ونور) can create a new dawn on us only if we completely forsake worshipping the Elders and, with confidence in ourselves and hope in God’s assistance turn to God and His Revelation; for it is He alone who is protector of the believer and who delivers him from Darkness to Light: الله ولي الذين آمنوا يخرجون من الظلمت إلى النور. And it is He ‘who sends His servants manifest signs, that He may lead you from the depth of Darkness into the Light’ (Al-Qur’an, 57:9). Today too, if the if the upholders of the Last Revelation gather courage to engage with the Revelation on their own, they will find in their midst the birth of a new Enlightenment and in this process they will always find the promised help of God: هو الذي يصلى عليكم و ملئكته ليخرجكم من الظلمت إلى النور وكان بالمؤمنين رحيما True, the Ummah may have the feeling of coming to a dead-end or like prophet Jonah we might find ourselves trapped in the in the dark and closed belly of a fish knowing not how to get out of the situation, yet a new Enlightenment is always knocking our door provided that we too, like Jonah (Yunus), have the courage to confide in our Lord: فنادى في الظلمت أن لا إله إلا أنت سبحانك إني كنت من الظالمين

Rashid Shaz
New Delhi
January 01, 2005

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