Humanistic Islam for the 21st century
Farhan Shah is a Muslim philosopher,
PhD fellow at the Faculty of theology, University of Oslo,
and Islam-consultant to the Center for Process Studies, CA.
One of the most topical issues facing Muslim peoples in our age is related to human rights thinking. Whatever their level of education, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are apodictically certain that Islam`s essence revolves around human welfare. However, due to an obsolete fossilised exegesis of Islam, and, further, political manipulation of Islam to suit the infinite avarice and gold-hunger of people in places of power in the Muslim world, this essence is relegated to the background.
In order to oppose anti-humanistic elements in Islam, self-critical Muslims need to bring into people`s consciousness the humanistic concept of Shariah, the Muslims bill of human rights. Moreover, it is important for reformist voices not to shock the naturally suspicious conservatism of their people by appearing as “prophets of a new culture”. The self-critical Muslim forces could certainly have a deeper cognitive impact on Muslim masses if they could show that their seemingly borrowed ideals of the human dignity and human rights are really the fundamentals of Islam, and is, as such, the rightful demand of free Muslim conscience.
In classical Islam, there was a clear demarcation line between rituals, dogmas, ideals, practices and beliefs that fell under the rights of God (Huquq Allah) or under Human rights (Huquq al adamiyyah). Because God is needless (al-Ghani) of human worship and independent of His rights, the fulfilment of God`s rights is a private matter between man and God. However, because human beings are dependent upon the fulfilment of certain human rights in order to live a dignified life, they are more important to fulfil than God`s rights. The rights of man (Huquq) were considered universal, regardless of material differences.
These rights (Huquq) were the building blocks for the development of legislation (fiqh) and ethics. In other words, the early Shariah was humanistic in its very nature; its express purpose being the protection of human rights, all of which orbit around three fundamental rights: (1) the inviolability of human beings, (2) the right of liberty, and (3) the right of ownership. This means that Islam recognised basic human rights from its beginning, and based its religious and political life on the unconditional protection of these rights. In Islamic history, we can find a human rights paradigm which was also of central focus of Shariah and scriptural interpretation. Any interpretation of Islam that produced human destruction or which curbed human welfare was not considered as an inauthentic interpretation of Islam and the purpose of Shariah. Here we can detect the vital synthesis of permanence and change: all interpretations of Islam ought to be in concord with the fundamental rights of human beings (constant). On the other hand, there needs to be process in Islam, but process must be in relation to the prescriptive elaborations of the inalienable rights of human agents not to the axiological postulates.
For instance, justice is one of the axiological principles in Islam. However, the deontological application of the principle of justice cannot be eternally binding upon all generations. The legislative prescriptions ought to be open-ended to reinterpretation in order to meet the demands of the eternal values forming the gist of the Shariah (its spirit and not its letter). Put in a different way, eternity and immutability belong only to the foundational values, whereas process and/or adaptivity is required in the legal structure of Islam. Not realising this dynamism of Shariah – that is, by neglecting the principle of process - all attempts to adjust obsolete interpretations to (post)modern realities is foredoomed to failure. It is the synthesis of the constant and the variable we need to revitalise in order to develop humanistic interpretations of Islam, in harmony with the Quranic message and our own shifting realities.
Expressed in other words, a “reform” of Islam in the 21th century implies re-discovering the humanistic ideals of Islam, and making them the centre of our temporal lives – privately and institutionally. The core values of humanism and human rights has been, and ought to be, the main focus of our lives as Muslims. The welfare of both humans and creation in toto lies at the core of the Shariah.
Regarding the method of intra-enlightenment, one effective way to foster critical awareness and trigger internally healthy change, is through discussion programs at local mosques. In this way, Muslim peoples can break the monopoly of the conservative Ulamas by opening up new and creative spaces, which will allow the masses to engage in constructive dialogue and to approach the Quran and secondary texts in relation to their own realities, thus bringing the practice of critical and independent reasoning (ijtihad) to a more democratic level.
Islam is essentially a humanistic attitude of life. Sadly, today, this humanistic legacy and essence is – to a large extent – buried by the all too often conservative, ossified and legalistic interpretations. The core of Islam needs to be rediscovered by a holistic and careful study of the Quran as well as critical approach to Islamic history, and further articulate interpretations of the Islamic faith that are in touch with our immediate realities.
To be Muslim is not simply to mechanically adopt certain dogmas and practices. It involves reasoning, critical awareness, active engagement in various NGOs, human rights activism, and intense and perpetual self-reflection. In other words, it is an ongoing process of becoming, reaching newer levels of God-consciousness and creation-awareness: a process unfinished.