The News | By Arshad Zaman | 20 June 2010
There is a quality to Ayaz Amir’s columns–wise, without being pretentious, with a seriousness wrapped in laughter–that can only be admired. Yet in the seductive laughter of his columns there can on rare occasions be ideas and recommendations that can provide fodder to a demagogue.
In a recent column (The News, June 11), Ayaz Amir recommends that: “Public opinion must be educated into demanding that if it is Islam we want it should be consensual Islam, not Zia’s self-serving version which has deformed our laws and created our restricted society.” But there is no compulsion in Islam (al-Baqara, 256); so “consensual” here must mean “by consensus” rather than “by consent.” If so then, Zia-ul-Haq apart, this recommendation blends an authoritarian liberalism with an anti-authoritarian view of Islam that may not be faithful to either liberalism or Islam.
From a purely secular liberal viewpoint, the phrase “public opinion must be educated” is alarming for it opens the door to, if not encourages, an authoritarianism that encompasses fascism. Is this not, after all, what the Jama`at-e-Islami or–the bête noire du jour–the “Taliban” are accused of, albeit with a different Educator? What is the “War on Terror” if not a project to “educate” public opinion in the Muslim world? The liberal position, surely, must be that propaganda and war–the “education” of public opinion–is not an appropriate activity for government (at least on its own citizens).
What then of education proper? Surely, the government must determine the content of school curricula? Certainly, but before we advocate doing this consensually, in a democratic fashion, let us recall that in 1897 the Indiana General Assembly sought–but mercifully, failed–to pass a bill to establish scientific truths, including changing the value of the mathematical constant pi (the circumference/diameter ratio) to 3.2, by legislative fiat. Mathematics, clearly, should be left to mathematicians and not settled by an Act of Parliament. Also, the most cherished values of a people–like Basic Rights–must be protected from the vagaries of parliamentary consensus.
If consensus on the interpretation of Nature (the “text” of science) must mean the consensus not of parliament but of scientists (from the Latin, scientia, knowledge, or ‘ilm; hence scientists, ‘ulama), then the same must apply to consensus on the interpretation of Revealed texts. We are led thus, by force of logic, to the classical Muslim view: Islam is defined by the ijma’ (consensus) of the `ulama (scholars). In the classical view, this consensus–more correctly, these consensual viewpoints, since multiple opinions are perfectly admissible and common–is then put to the test of popular acceptability by the practice of the Muslim nation (umma) over time, the final arbiter of scholarly differences.
Islam, then, is “consensual Islam” (the adjective is superfluous), as long as this consensus is understood in a far more nuanced manner than in parliamentary democracies in the West. In England, by a decision of the Privy Council, with two Archbishops dissenting, belief in hell ceased to be a part of (Anglican) Christianity, through an Act of Parliament. This kind of consensual Islam–better called, parliamentary Islam–is unlikely to be acceptable to most Muslims. This, historically, has posed an insurmountable problem to the project of transplanting English legal and political traditions to colonised–and post-colonial “independent”–Muslim societies.
Since this involves nothing less than re-imagining Islam in the light of Western Reason, let us remind ourselves both of the undisputed Christian antecedents of Western Reason, and of certain empirical differences in the careers of Christianity and Islam that create pitfalls in treating the two as essentially similar. Since the first are well known, let us confine ourselves–with all the dangers that a superficial treatment of a weighty subject involves–to noting four differences between Christianity and Islam that bear on our concerns. First, Muslims hold the Quran to be the literal word of God, while the Christian Bible (New Testament) consists of accounts of the apostles, comparable to the Hadiths. Second, the Quran and the Hadiths are rich in legal texts, which are notable by their absence from the Bible.
Third, unlike the text of the Quran, there is no agreed text of the Bible: a distinguished graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, Professor Bart D. Ehrman puts it this way:”…we don’t have the originals… Moreover, the vast majority of Christians for the entire history of the church have not had access to the originals… Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals… Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” (From whence, incidentally, arises the difference between what “Fundamentalism” means in Christianity, and in Islam.)
Fourth, there is no Church or clergy–against which the philosophes of the European Enlightenment railed– in Islam. The `ulama are scholars, working as individuals in their private capacity, and do not constitute a corporate order like the Church, in struggle with which the European State emerged. The birth of all modern ideas–including those on law and politics–was in reaction to the scandalous excesses of the Catholic Church. In reaction to these, there was a re-birth (renaissance) of secular society and an unsuccessful re-formation of Christianity that was consolidated under the light of scientific reason (the Enlightenment) in which the Church and the Bible were displaced from the political sphere, that was to be secular, rational, and consensual (in a populist sense).
In other words, the nature of the extant Bible–which even the Church claimed was inspired, not revealed, which had few do’s and don’ts, and whose text itself could not withstand the scrutiny of internal (German) Biblical Criticism–allowed Christian-Modern parliaments to establish near exclusive rights over the making of laws, and to confine politics to secular concerns. The existence of the Church (or churches) facilitated negotiations between the King (or, the State) and the accepted guardians of Christianity, and lent legitimacy and finality to the compromises reached.
These conditions simply do not exist in Islam and among Muslims. That is why the solution does not lie in one party “educating”–by budgetary allocations or military action–the other, but in working out a way to live with irreconcilable differences. The body politic must accommodate the Mulla and the Jentelman, without one seeking to eliminate the other. In this, arguably perhaps, Muslim history may be a better guide than Christian-Modern history. As Allama Iqbal had put it, neither Mustafa (Kemal Pasha) nor Reza Shah (I) display it, for the Spirit of the East searches for a Body, anon (with apologies for the horrible translation of: Na Mustafa na Raza Shah meyn namood iski, keh rooh-e-sharq badan kay talaash meyn hay abhi).
Source: The News
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