Understanding the essence of religious traditions in the contemporary world - Future Islam
InsightMarch April 2006

Understanding the essence of religious traditions in the contemporary world

Mohammad Nejatullah Siddiqi

Ever since the human race was launched on earth it was destined to live together. That was an added challenge to the challenge of coming to terms with the environment and with life itself—the inevitable questions of why, wherefrom and whereto. Religion came to help mankind in facing all the three challenges. Broadly speaking it did so by connecting men and women to God and reassuring mankind that the environment too owed its existence to Him. Religion thus became a source of harmony protecting from schizophrenia, depression and conflict.

What about the contemporary world? Instant communication, fast dissemination of information, shrinking of space and removal of many barriers, has elevated ‘living together’ from the status of a metaphor to that of description of reality. Cultures intermix, dress codes change and cuisines cross-fertilize. Gone are the days of living in exclusive communities, comprising one’s coreligionists only. Living spaces are now increasingly shared by individuals and families who belong to different ethnic groups and speak different languages. Added to these needs for adjustments are some new worries.

Expanding markets create new opportunities but individuals and groups face new risks and uncertainties. The strong find new weapons while the weak seek new alliances to defend themselves against hegemonic designs. Anxieties increase, depression deepens, conflicts multiply. But the system itself fails to reverse these destructive trends or release forces that could successfully counterbalance them. National governments as well as supra national organizations, instead of solving the problem increasingly appear as part of the problem. The need for a harmonizer was never greater. Could recourse to the religious traditions serve humanity at this critical juncture? Could religion play, once again, the positive role it played at the dawn of human society?

Some demur, saying: Never again! They see religion as a divisive force, pitching individuals against individuals, groups against groups. Some feel religion robs men and women of their reason, their independence of mind, their freedoms, in effect enslaving them to other humans claiming to be their guides and mentors. Religions, certain about the truths they bear, lack tolerance for others, eventually making their adherents fanatics. Religion, they claim, is by nature paternalistic and authoritarian, discouraging creativity, innovations and experimentation that have been sources of progress. They find religion in history entertaining hegemonic designs serving easily as tools in the hand of colonizers and imperial powers. Many a war has been fought in the name of religion spilling innocent blood, they assert.

Spokes-persons from every religion have come forward to ward off these allegations and defend their positions. Mistakes of the past should not stand in the way of realizing potentials for the future, they rightly suggest. Focus on the essence of the religious traditions rather than being bogged down by the details, many of which might well turn out to be transient or space-bound, they argue. They are being heard. They have to be, as the dominant paradigm fails to prove it can correct itself. There is nothing in the secular tradition to restrain greed, limit hegemony or replace exploitation by fair distribution of wealth and income. Materialistic philosophies provide no credible basis for justice and equity, without which there can be no peace. Pragmatism was always a tool of the strong and resourceful, justifying their exploitation of the weak and the poor.

As a student of Islam it will be my endeavor to explain how Islam answers the needs of contemporary humanity. I will also argue that the Islamic approach is not essentially different from the other religious traditions so that forging a common platform is very much possible. A common minimum agenda for the rescue of contemporary humanity evolved jointly by religions could also accommodate the aspirations of any and all that would still like to keep away from religions. That kind of non-confrontational, accommodative platform would not only be the right venue for dialogue between civilizations. It could well be the harbinger of a new era of peace and prosperity, free of tyranny and destitution. But all that requires a fresh understanding of the essence of religious traditions. The crucial question is, who will do that?

Islam as essential religion

Man-God relation defines as well as shapes all other relations in Islam—relations between man and man as well as relation between man and environment, for example. Since man-God relation is based on choice free of coercion, freedom and non-coercion becomes the prior most essential tradition. The fact that man-to- man relations are under the umbrella of man-God relation inculcates a sense of equality and shared dignity. Environment as God’s gift to accountable-equals, sharing the God-given space becomes a partner in the art of living together. Conflicts arising at any level in any one of these relationships should be regarded as inappropriate and disruptive of good life. The method of conflict resolution befitting moral equals would be democratic and none else. Islam links peace with faith and avoidance of inappropriate behavior:

“Those who believed and did not mix their faith with inappropriate behavior, they are the ones who have peace and who are on the right course.”( 6:82)

The Quranic word translated above as ‘inappropriate behavior’ is zulm. Lexicographers render it as placing things in wrong positions ( wad ‘ al-shay’ e fi ghair e mahallihi).It is also rendered as transgression or oppression, depending on the context. One example of zulm would be denying dignity to any human being as according to Quran dignity belongs to humans qua humans (17:70).This, along with the nature of life on earth as a test (67:2) and the principle of non coercion (2:256), firmly places a Muslim’s relation with the non-Muslim humanity as that of equals in being God’s people whose right to choose is recognized, without an error in choice affecting his or her dignity as a human being.

I hope I will not be misunderstood when I say that a person’s right to choose necessarily implies another person’s right to disagree from him or her. We the fraternity of religious people should not flinch in accepting that idea. The conviction that one is right, with the corollary that someone else is wrong, is nothing to be embarrassed about. It is not bigotry. It does not necessarily lead to fanaticism. What corrupts society and destroys peace is the desire of some to lord over others, to deprive them of their right to choose, to violate their dignity by coercing them into a way of life they did not choose. Islam rejects that approach and so do all religions worth the name. So let freedom with dignity be the first plank of our common agenda.

A Common Agenda

Social equality, democratic decision-making and economic justice tempered with equity are in line, next to freedom. Each one of these can be supported by the sacred texts of Islam. I am sure the same would be true of all world religions represented here. Instead of taking your time by producing references and cross-references, I proceed to note that these are also the core values required for meeting the aspirations of human beings the world over in the wake of globalization. But, unfortunately these are the very values large masses of humanity are being persistently denied. Further to lament is the fact that these are the masses that declare allegiance to religion. What went wrong? Does the blame lie entirely on the ‘other’, the former colonizers and/or the hegemonic superpower? Or, did religion as shaped by layers of corrupting influences over centuries fail to sustain these values in practice? Why and how do hegemonies persist despite being out of tune with the will of humanity at large? Why and how do religious communities fail to cleanse themselves of the unwanted accretions that submerge their core values under a morass of rites and rituals? Analysis and soul- searching leading to light rather than unproductive heat and self-destructive rage are what we owe to ourselves and to posterity.

Meanwhile I humbly submit that no system of core values bereft of a spiritual basis can sustain itself. Rational agendas collapse when under attack by racist or fascist forces. It is only faith in a just God that can sustain morality that is universal in its scope, unqualified by nationality, ethnicity, religion, color or caste. Social equality, democratic decision-making and economic justice, tempered with equity, are not sustainable by mere slogans or pragmatic platforms. These values must be internalized by individuals before they can be actualized in institutions and organizations. They must come to them naturally, as they would in the wake of faith and accountability. They are the values unbiased nature of man cherishes, before one is (falsely, I think) led to believe that one’s survival or/and progress requires one to tolerate inequality, allow exploitation of some, deny democracy to others and opt for double standards in dealing with the ‘other’. Once that fallacy is exposed, and an appeal to the good sense of men and women is made from their counterparts in all and every religious group, we can expect positive response from all quarters, including those benefiting from the status quo.

I will be the last person to entertain a utopian dream of moral appeals bringing down empires and ushering in a regime of fair distribution of wealth and power across the globe. A struggle may well ensue. But the strength required to win in that struggle can come only from a clear moral stand, universal in its appeal, unfettered by the past baggage many of us are carrying.

Responding to the Challenge

That, I think, is the challenge religions are facing. Steering clear of the blame game and cutting across the web of conspiracy theories, can we reach the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women to inculcate in them the above mentioned core values by reconnecting them with the source of all value? It is no small order as it calls for a measure of humility and self-sacrifice not very visible in our ranks, the ranks of the advocates of great religions. Deliverance lies in suppressing the ego and effacing the self. Let individuals reconnect to the divine. Let them do it on their own without imposing on them our dated interpretations of the sacred texts. Trust them. Make them aware of the stakes. Tell them nothing less than the very survival of human race is involved. Encourage them to rise above the parochial and the transient and target the universal and the durable, but do not dictate recipes out of secondary texts long outdated. Give them time to think, discuss and experiment..

Can we rise to this challenge? Need we?
We do, for two reasons. Firstly, the energy that is released by one’s drawing inspiration from God through His revelation and worship cannot come from following guides and mentors themselves as far removed from divinity as any other seeker. We need the maximum possible level of spiritual strength and moral conviction in religious communities for successfully resisting the onslaught of secular materialist globalization. We also need it for building a new world order based on spirituality, morality, equality, democratic decision making and economic justice tempered with equity. As we noted above, such conviction and moral strength can come only from direct approach to divine revelations. The selflessness that comes out of direct allegiance to God eludes those who must connect with Him through intermediaries no better than themselves. The humility needed to prevent chauvinism taking over the global project for reconstruction eludes those whose heads are not permanently lowered in His presence that is always around.

Yet other reason every man and woman must be encouraged to seek guidance directly from the source is the novelty of the situation in which we find ourselves. Nothing similar ever occurred in history. We need unfettered exercise of human ingenuity. We need untutored reading of the sacred texts. For these two are the only sources of fresh ideas and new guidance suited to meet the challenges of change: the word of God and the human capacity to think, observe, imagine and intuit…Religious mentors who deny these sources to the common man, claiming a monopoly of these sources, commit the gravest of all sins. They have no right to do so. They do not have a divine mandate for appropriating the role of interpreting God .Nor can they justify their claim that they are better equipped for intellection and intuition than other people. The question then is, why do they do so?

I think they are afraid. They think people will make mistakes. Men and women will err in reading and understanding the sacred texts and they will err in thinking about their new problems and arriving at correct solutions. Different people will come up with different interpretations and suggest different solutions. There will be chaos. Chaos is bad enough but chaos in the name of religion is unacceptable as it may destroy the very credibility of religion, they fear.

I will submit two points for consideration in this regard. Firstly, these fears are ill founded and exaggerated, without any basis in history. And, secondly, the alternative course of action they are adopting bears no promise of redeeming the situation.

Taking the first point first, I would remind all concerned that it is God Himself Who invited His people to read the text, or listen to it being read to them, ponder over it and be guided by it. He also urged them to think, observe, travel, dialogue, introspect…and draw lessons.[1] God knows His people better than we might ever know ourselves. We must resign ourselves to His ways and trust men and women in seeking guidance directly from the sacred texts. We must not deter them from thinking independently on the problems facing them. The fresh understanding of religious traditions needed at this hour need not be a prerogative of the elite in religion. It will simply not do. In order to be really effective it has to come from the grass roots and encompass all.

It should also be expected that in their independent pursuit of guidance men and women will adopt all the ways and means available, such as exchange of views, analytical survey of experiments past and present, researches, simulations, etc., etc. They are expected to avail themselves of the services of their religious guides if and when they need them. But these services should not be imposed on them. All that religious guides and mentors need do is try keeping their followers focused on the main project: a world order characterized by morality, equality, democratic decision-making and justice.

There is no alternative. No religious establishment has so far been able to launch such a project. No religion has been able to initiate a mass movement against the onslaught of secular, materialist hegemonic globalization. The probability that any one of them may be able to do so in future is accompanied by the certainty that its appeal will be confined to its own followers, unable to cut across the religious divisions. What we need is universal focus on a spiritually defined order that affords all religious traditions equal opportunity of contributing. Going back to the grass roots and seeking guidance directly from whatever is recognizably divine in human heritage, in the full glare of the light given by reason and intellect aided by intuition, imagination and all kinds of inspirations……, is the only course of action with some chance of success. Let us mobilize all our resources in favor of such an agenda. God willing, we shall succeed.

[1] I can quote only from Quran See 96:1;34:46;16:44;22:46; 6:98;7:185 .;12:109;28:72;35:29;2:121, among other verses.(The first number refers to chapters and the second to verses).

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