The time we are living in is disturbing in many ways. This moment of political, religious, social, and environmental cataclysms is especially of great importance to the Muslim world in which new forces are being unleashed by the development of human thought and action; it provides an important opportunity for profound examination and self-criticism. Instead of taking refuge in reactionary self-defense or brushing aside the discomforting realities in which Muslims are facing, the Muslim world will be better off by confronting the roots of evil and malady created fundamentally within the Islamic world, and not externally “imposed” by Western powers, as superficially understood. Hiding behind this screen of mediocre accusation – that the West is the prime factor in infecting the Muslim world with contagious diseases – will only waste precious time and further keep the Muslim body in a state of sickness. The symptoms of these invisible diseases are, in brief, as follows: chronic problems in ameliorating the scope for women’s healthy self-realisation, the difficulties in developing viable democratic structures, the inability to demarcate political power from the self-appointed controlling religious authority, the incapacity to establish tolerance, respect, and deep recognition of religious pluralism, far-flung immiseration and the inability to halt discriminatory laws against religious minorities.
Earlier, I mentioned the roots of evil. These invisible forces are born out of the Muslim failure. That is, it is not the inevitable effect of Islam as such; on the contrary, it is the result of an “act of cultural and intellectual suicide”. It is chiefly the cumulative result of distorted theological thinking and a dysfunctional culture that egressed from it. Thus, to think that political, sociological, and economic programs can cure this inward sickness, is a deluded and inadequate way of viewing the morass in the Muslim world. It is of great importance to understand the fact that deeply existential issues ought to be addressed at the level at which it exists, i.e., theological-philosophical. Muslims must be cognizant of the profound law of nature that they will not be capable of modifying/reforming their external environment unless a change is made in their inward lives. Iqbal expresses this truth in these terms: “A new world cannot exist before its meaning is present in the conscience of men”.
Shutting the door of reality does not imply a change of realities; rather, it implies an embrace of unreality. The reality is that the vast Muslim public has internalised a culture of blind submission to outmoded theological understandings of Islam, propagated by “religious dignitaries” as ultimate and beyond critical scrutiny. Due to the sacrosanctity of these finite understandings, Muslim people are reluctant to grant their own conscience the right to question and think critically. This, then, tends to bolster mental servitude to the extent that even man`s higher consciousness in his relation with God must be sought through the medium of the sacred clerical elite.
This deformed, regressive, and monarchial understanding of Islam is all too often the ordinary Islam of millions of Muslims in both Western and Muslim communities, causing too many minds to be held captive in self-made psychological prison houses, silencing the skeptical and reformatory consciousnesses who are searching for fresh interpretations of their intimate faith. How unlike the inner impulse of the Qur`an, a book which constantly appeals to independent reflection, creative activity, and the discovery of new vistas of life.
As I see it, the dominant interpretations of Islam are pervaded by rigorous conservatism and thus can no longer provide adequate answers for the younger generation, who tend to possess a mental outlook differing, in important respects, from their predecessors. If Islam is to prove to be a constructive and emancipating source in our time, its interpretations ought to grow organically with fresh knowledge, fresh experiences and fresh challenges. Much of the pathological condition in Islamic thought is due to the fact that our horizons are locked in the past rather than being in touch with our own realities and complexities, thus making past periods of Islam idols by holding onto finite interpretations as if they were infinite and eternally binding upon all unborn generations of Muslims. It is of paramount importance to raise the eyes above past narratives and to understand that the interpretative activity is not an accomplished fact, a thing finished with. Rather, it ought to be in perpetual development, of formation; the creative efforts to suit the fundamentals of Islam to shifting realities continues all the time.
In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, the Muslim philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) declares that “a false reverence for past history and its artificial resurrection constitute no remedy for a people`s decay”. Therefore, the only effective approach that counteracts the agents of stasis, blind obedience, and immobility is a fundamental re-evaluation and re-construction of our religious heritage. In order to carry out this necessary task of deep theological re-thinking, Muslim peoples need to foster environments conducive to creating room for a critical access to Islamic textual corpus. The Muslim community needs a complete overhauling of its present mentality. This can be achieved by a reform of the educational structures in schools, and in every teaching institution. The reform ought to be along the all-embracing principles of freedom, equality, human dignity, and social responsibility, generative of fostering democracy, equality of sexes, respect for diversity of visions and beliefs, deep consciousness for the non-human communities of life, and a critical approach to inherited modes of thought and behaviour. This is only possible, not by running refuge in our self-defensive mechanisms, nor by blind conformism, but, on the contrary, by challenging the monopoly of the clerical elite and religious institutions producing theologies of fear and spiritual darkness, obstructing the creative unfolding of the human ego as a source of infinite possibilities. This is a profound transition which entails keen intellectual and moral stamina.
A deep re-thinking of Islamic thought will make it possible for Muslims to deal with their religion and its unfoldment in space and time in a more reflective and responsible manner, provided the Muslim mind shakes off its dogmatic slumber. The Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush (b.1945) states that we need a critical re-reading of the corpus of Islamic texts and doctrines so that we can begin to “break free from the dogmas of the past which may have been relevant at a certain stage in Islamic history, but no longer.” Furthermore, Muhammad Iqbal maintains that human interpretations cannot claim any finality as they are subjective interpretations open to revision and adjustment. He states in a categorical way that “the teachings of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems”.
Thus, through a critical re-reading and a re-orientation of the prevailing religious thought in Islam, the Muslim people might be able to make healthy and novel contributions to Islam, restoring it its original evolutionary and humane outlook, and to their own historical context, promoting values that will go on to form a world in which compassion, justice and creational unity are not mere cherished potentialities, but rather tender actualities in the world-life of the human species.