The Case For An Intellectual Discourse On Islam



The righteous rage that boils over into lynchings, mobs, suspicions and allegations of blasphemy shows a loss of balance and rationality in our social behaviour. This is a disturbing truth that needs a serious collective introspection. Among other things, a lot of this (self) righteous rage is because of an inability and unwillingness to intellectually confront and address diversity, difference and dissenting opinions.

The religious discourse in our society is largely anti intellectual to the extent that even an intellectual approach to religion is sneered at as deviant, threatening and disrespectful. This simplistic, anti intellectual discourse is asserted by wielding power and instilling fear by religious leaders, and the use of threat and violence by those who lack the privilege of religious authority.

The decadence of religious discourse in this part of the world is rooted in the colonial past when the prestigious madrassah was systematically marginalized and disempowered as part of the colonial education policy of ‘schooling the world.’ The cornered madrassah took refuge behind a defensive, protectionist, insecure religious discourse, trying to hold on in a rapidly changing milieu. In an attempt at self preservation, this defensive discourse refused to engage and became airtight and obscurantist. This still characterizes the madrassah and those who emerge from the system: a stubborn refusal to intellectually engage with alternative discourses that the modern world is teeming with. But we cannot insulate our youth from the tide of intellectual assault from modern ideas and new patterns of thinking. There will be questions raised, and our refusal to engage or even bother with articulating responses will alienate thinking minds.

It is already happening at an ever-increasing rate. As a teacher on Islam, I have observed an incremental trend over the years, of skepticism among young people exposed to the kind of heavily Westernized modern education we have at private urban educational institutions. There are lots of questions as they encounter diverse patterns of thought. Unfortunately, answers through religion are most often not available, and even asking is often put down as impertinent. This produces a disenchantment with a faith that is unable to address critical and vital questions of the day. It is these disenchanted bright minds that possess social and cultural capital to make up the pool that supplies the academia, the media and the bureaucracy with fresh human resource. Hence this early skepticism which hardens into a strident secularism, filters into institutions of state and society, to be systematically wielded and exerted with power.

At the other end, this systematic empowerment of the secularized, socially privileged lot breeds frustrated rage in the conservative mind. The conservative mind is fiercely anti intellectual. This anti intellectualism takes any intellectual challenge as an audacious affront, a ‘conspiracy against Islam’- hence violence becomes the only ‘language’ to respond with.

These developments are ominous, and the cracks and gashes are already appearing, cutting across society, letting the red hot lava boil over. Unfortunately, few are cognizant of this and even fewer conscious of our responsibility to stem the process in our capacities. Any calls for a progressive Islamic discourse are put down with suspicion of hidden agendas. The truth is, developing a modern intellectual and philosophical Islamic discourse and mainstreaming it is nobody’s agenda but Islam’s own need. In fact, Islam has had progressive thinkers throughout its history. Being progressive is not deviance; it is an approach which makes human beings throughout time sift through all the narratives and reveal the essence in a way that is most relevant and applicable for their times.

In more open societies in the West, Muslim communities have no option but to engage and adapt, hence one sees an increasing realization of the need to come up with an intellectually robust spirituality that does not cave in or go berserk on encounter with difference. Thinkers and scholars like Tariq Ramadan, Yasir Qadhi, Omar Suleiman and Hamza Yusuf among others are rising up to the intellectual challenge Islam is faced with. Their fidelity to Islamic fundamentals and tradition makes their progressive voices credible and authentic.

An intellectual discourse on Islam should not be polemical but dialectical. It should be guided by Islamic tradition yet fully cognizant of influential modern and postmodern ideas. It should reflect an awareness of and respect for the diversity and pluralism within Islam and outside of Islam. It should be equipped with tools and methods for credible research and aim to mediate between ideas, creating common grounds. It should engage in a modern ijtehad with the traditional tools of Muslim jurisprudence, to address contemporary issues like homosexuality and the reconstruction of gender, new atheism, militant Islamism etc. Such a project must use the language, approach, style and tools most familiar to the modern mind. This will bring two great benefits: firstly, rescuing the skeptical modern Muslim mind from disenchantment by addressing critical questions. Secondly, mainstreaming an intellectual religious discourse which respects diversity and demonstrates to the mass Muslim mind that difference can be lived with and engaged with intellectually.

Religious scholars and intellectuals here need to realize the need to develop a new religious discourse that arms itself with reason, not fear and violence.

Maryam Sakeenah is a Pakistan-based independent researcher and freelance writer on International politics, human rights and Islam. She divides her time between teaching high school, writing, research and voluntary social work. She also authored a book ‘Us versus Them and Beyond’ analyzing the Clash of Civilization theory and the role of Islam in facilitating intercultural communication.


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