Thursday, June 8, 2017

Ramadan as Time for Intellectual Jihad

( also published on the ABC RELIGION AND ETHICS WEBSITE  in a slightly different version)

As it is widely known Ramadan is usually understood as time for increasing intensity in ritualistic practice. Most unfortunately, last few Ramadans in particular are also being increasingly connected with acts of senseless violence and terrorism  perpetuated worldwide by groups like ISIS ( or individuals inspired by their beliefs)  whose perverted interpretation of Islam/Islamic history  views suicide bombing as especially meritorious acts of martyrdom and piety during this Holy Month. It is my contention, however, that Ramadan should foremost be a time for increased intellectual practice or intellectual jihad.

The Islamic intellectual tradition, including its fountainheads the Qur’an and Sunna, stress this intellectual jihad in myriad of ways. For example, one of the most repeatedly occurring themes in the Qur’an is that of intellectual reflection and contemplation (tadabbur /tafakkur). Sayings ( regardless of their actual ‘authenticity as per classical Islamic sciences)   such as ‘The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr ‘ and ‘ An hour of (intellectual) reflection/contemplation  is better than a one thousand years of worship’ testify to the strong intellectual core of the Islamic tradition that is in full harmony with the Qur’anic worldview. A good number of Muslim philosophers, rationalist theologians and jurists,  past and present, have also stressed the intellectually robust nature of the Islamic teachings ( and have often attracted criticism by strong  anti-intellectual currents in Islam that have always been there).  

Furthermore, the injunctions found in the Qur’an and Sunna pertaining to the performance of rituals are clearly linked to an underlying rationale ( ‘ila). So we are told (2:183) that  the reason for fasting is to increase our level of God consciousness (taqwa),  that the daily prayer (salat) is a means to keep us away from indecency/evil (29:45),  that the animal sacrifice at time of hajj (qurban) is purely symbolic in nature (22: 37). We are also told that the legal alms and charities (zakat) are levied in order to prevent the concentration of wealth among the rich (57: 7).

It is an inconvenient and theologically disturbing truth (that I as a believing, practicing Muslim am still grappling with) that many terrorists and the ISIS affiliated scholars they follow are ‘very big’ on  the ritualistic aspects of Islam such as fasting and praying ( and even ‘bigger’ on formalistic  ones such as beards and turbans)  yet they engage in senseless violence and terrorism.  Could this disconnect between ritualistic cum formalistic piety and their purposes at least in part explain this theological conundrum? While I do not have an equivocal answer to this question, the question is, in my view, worth asking and seriously reflecting on.

It is my considered view that a good number of contemporary Muslims have lost track of the intellectual jihad aspect of the Islamic tradition and have prioritised ritualistic and formalistic ‘piety’ over  that of intellectual and ethical one.  Ramadan is the perfect time to reclaim this invaluable aspect of our tradition.

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