Islam and religion as a free
intellectual exercise

Dec. 10, 2001

A group of modern Muslims are gathering in Toronto,
Canada, where they will propose a modern worldview of
Islam; the time now, just after the collapse of the fundamentalist Taliban, is most apt for an exercise of this kind. In this context, Tahir Aslam Gora writes about the modern concerns that Islamic societies must address

Islamic scholars are seriously concerned about the disconnection between Islam on the one hand, and the evolving realities of the modern world on the other. Some modern scholars, therefore, suggest that Muslims need to rethink their religion and their worldview. In making this suggestion, we as Muslims, cannot adopt any religious identity other than Islam. This being so, however, we can reform Islam in order to bring it into harmony with the modern world. I suggest the following outline for the "new Islam":

1. The adoption of democratic values: It is very important to understand the real form of democratic values. Most Muslims reject democracy as an invention of the West, whereas democracy is the common heritage of all human beings. Most Muslim nations believe democracy consists of elections, or a particular system of government. In fact, democracy, in addition to elections and a system of government, involves recognition of the principle "live and let live". It is this kind of tolerant and flexible behaviour that allows people to live together and respect all human beings, in spite of differences of religion, colour and race.

2. Complete freedom of expression: Freedom of expression has always been non-existent in the Islamic world. This is due to the Muslim's need to impose the Quran and Hadith on every walk of life, whereas most daily affairs have no concern with religious scriptures. Although religious books do wield some influence in every religion; this influence is usually limited to the clergy, and has no concern with State law. The prevailing religious rigidity does not allow a Muslim to express his/her ideas. There are even orders that writers and journalists be beheaded for having written about certain topics. The prohibition on studying the books of famous and important writers, such as Salman Rushdie, is a typical example in this regard.

A lack of dialogue is another major problem in Muslim societies. Creative ideas are strictly prohibited in our societies. We have now reached a point where all the hard work put in by a writer is wasted due to his/her own "self censorship". Most of our writers have become so engrossed in religious faith that they are ready to hang anyone arguing in favour of freedom of expression. It is a fact that nations adopting the way of drubbing instead of dialogue can never enjoy the magnificence of liberty. Muslim societies cannot find the track of reality and truth without the adoption of real freedom of expression.

3. Implementation of international human rights: International human rights are also rejected as they are considered an invention of the West, whereas millions of Muslims living in the West are way better off than in their own Islamic societies due to these very human rights. The principle of human rights is actually a great gift for mankind, and Islamic societies should try to make it better instead of rejecting it.

4. End to polygamy and holy war (jihad): Polygamy can never be an appreciable practice. It is normally argued by Muslims that the prophet allowed it for the betterment of widows and the destitute women's marital life, whereas most of the Prophet's marriages were not with such women. Here, we can only say in soft words that it happened, for whatever reason. This inhuman practice should now be abandoned. "Jihad", the second name for the dominance of Islam, should also be banned.

5. Equality of men and women: I have repeatedly written that Muslim societies provide the status of a mother, sister, daughter and wife to a woman, but are not ready to accept her status as a human being and a woman. The modern world provides equal rights to all human beings, without discrimination based on gender.

6. Ending the superiority complex among Muslims with regard to other nations: We, Muslims, consider other nations inferior because we think that we are on the right path, and uniquely entitled to heaven. The other nations are considered to be destined for hell. We ought to be able to understand the realities of life and the universe. Not only the Western world, but also the Chinese, Japanese, and other nations of the Far East and liberal nations of East India, including Hindus, are on the way of understanding the beauties of life, adopting liberal ways. Muslims believe Islam is the only religion from God, and so we consider ourselves a "chosen nation". Although most of religions have the same ownership claim about God, the rigidity of other communities in this respect has already decreased, whereas Muslims are not ready to accept the reality that God is not a religious embodiment. God is actually the name of the Universe we are all part of.

7. Establishing a practical environment of love towards all human beings: Muslims will have to give a message of love to all human beings. This should be exhibited practically.

8. Participating in all types of arts, like dance, music, and paintings etc: The importance of art in Muslim society was felt during "Khalafat-e-Osmania" at the State level. But afterwards, Muslim States started to become a factor in the abolition of the arts. During the 21st century, most Muslim societies consider the arts as an uncivilised activity, and a serious crime according to religion. This attitude prevents an understanding of the beauty of life. Muslim societies should adopt an attitude of participation in all art, including dance, music and painting, without any feeling of religious sin. Education of these arts should be arranged and popularised, and art academies established.

9. Formulation of modern liberal societies in the Muslim countries: Modern liberal societies should be established in all Muslim countries. Gays and Lesbians should be provided with their rightful space and liberty, as is internationally recognised today.

10. Frank discussion regarding historical Islamic personalities: A friendly and frank attitude should be adopted in the discussion of historical Islamic personalities, instead of expressing an emotional attitude. We should stop concealment of facts regarding the lives of our religious personalities. For instance, while studying the life of the prophet of Islam, it should be kept in mind that being a great leader of his era, he was a human being like us. His historical greatness can also be explained in the fact that he formulated the best human principals of his time. But being a human being, he had human instincts as well. His love for women, for instance, was a manifestation of his human instinct. He practiced politics and recognised the fact that a society could not be established without political strategies.

We do have the same emotions about the "Poise Caliphs". They also continue the political struggle, and as a matter of fact, some of them were involved in conspiracies killing the other. There is no harm in accepting these realities as historical facts. The Imams used all the available sources of knowledge to understand their religion better. A true saint is not actually restricted to any religion; s/he represents all of humanity. All the sufis of the Muslim world will no doubt be a part of the same category. Prophets were the leaders of their nations. The present intellectuals, writers, scientists, thinkers, philosophers, sincere social workers and saints, who provide guidance to their nations are no less than the prophets.

11. Rejecting the concept of religious sin: It is necessary to reject the concept of religious sin according to the "new Islam" to save human energies from rusting with the burden of guilt. This is also important to free one's mind. A sense of responsibility is preferable to a fear of sin. The sense of sin about dance, singing and drinking is far too great in Islam, and causes Muslims to become hypocrites. Such feelings are in no way relevant to today's life and universe. Muslims have now come to the point where a boy and girl cannot "date" each other without this sense of sin.

12. Consideration of prayers as symbolic, ritual and personal matters: There is no harm in traditional prayers and worship, but these should not be considered as the be-all and end-all of life. It is sufficient to consider these practices a matter of personal consolation. Some practices, like the sacrifice of animals, should be stopped immediately.

13. An end to taboos on alcohol and halaal meat: The prohibition of alcohol and pork is meaningless today. Alcohol drinking nations have proved themselves to be better in moral and human values. The use of alcohol will be a personal matter in the "new Islam", in no way concerned with religious principles. The theory of "halaal meat" is also a ridiculous thing today.

14. Considering the Quran as a symbolic, religious, and spiritual book: The Quran should be considered a symbolic, religious and, to an extent, spiritual book. The Quran cannot be implemented in every walk of life. It is evident that no economic and social system could be developed in the light of the Quran or any other religious book. This is the reason that Canada and several European countries have developed systems that could never have been developed in any Islamic country. At present , no Muslim country is even 10 per cent as advanced in humanitarian principles and studies as these societies.

15. Ultimate objective the "new Islam": The ultimate objective of the "new Islam" should only be peace for all of humanity.

16. Concept of sharing the world: The world is a shared global society today. It cannot be made a shared living place for all the human beings without any intellectual struggle, as all demonstrated human rights declared until now result from the continuation of the intellectual struggle. Western intellectuals brought the West out of the pre-20th century religious rigidity, and separated religion from daily life. They tried to make the human mind so vast that religion could make slaves of them. Muslims should not face up to the realities of the modern world and walk shoulder to shoulder with other nations of the world.

17. Concept of the "universal god" instead of the "religious god": According to "new Islam", god is a universal phenomenon - a part of humanity and all religions and systems. It is not a specific concept, but a universal unit to which everything in the universe belongs.

18. Use of the term "intellectuals" and "leaders" instead of "prophets": The terms "intellectuals and leaders" will be used instead of the old term "prophet" in "new Islam". There is no need for prophets, gurus or leaders; the "new Islam" will be put forward as an intellectual movement. I do understand that those addicted to Islamic ethics will use arguments of "Aya and Hadith", and an abundance of questions in burdensome religious language. It is, however, a fact that these terminologies carry no weight today. References from imams also have no justification at present. The realities of life and the universe are simple and evident, and sufficient to understand life, afterlife, the universe and everything beyond. The "new Islam" is necessary in the struggle to bring the life of nations bound by religious rigidity on the road to liberation.

In addition to these basic points, new points and details will continue to be added as required. In an ever-changing universe, the constant evolution of an intellectual system is the only rational course.

(The author is a Canada based Islamic scholar)






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