The concern of this study has been to explore how on the basis of different manahij, and the assumptions that inform them, the two contemporary Islamic schools of thought, Neo-traditional Salafism (NTS) and progressive Muslims, conceptualise their respective versions of a religiously ideal ‘Believer’ and ‘Muslim Woman’ concepts. A particular focus of the study was to highlight the crucial importance of the act of interpretation and its underlying methodological, epistemological and hermeneutical assumptions in the formulation of the NTS and progressive Muslims representation of these concepts. The broader context of the thesis was informed by the contemporary intra-Muslim debates on the issues of religious authenticity, legitimacy and the authority to speak for, and thus, define the very nature and future of Islam. In this context I pointed out that the existing scholarship suggested that, due to the forces of globalisation and modernisation which favour democratisation of religious knowledge and facilitate the fragmentation of religious authority, these debates have intensified with a number of actors who have emerged asserting their authority to authoritatively speak on behalf of Muslims and Islam. I also argued that this state of affairs left us with a perplexing phenomenon of ‘normative Islams’ which at times can be mutually exclusive on certain issues. The concepts of a ‘Believer’ and ‘Muslim Woman’, the focus of this study, are such two issues.
In order to situate the intense and highly contested contemporary debates and discourses on the issue of the nature of the Islamic tradition and to show their essential continuity/discontinuity with the experiences of the previous communities of interpretation, the first chapter outlined the broad contours of the historical background behind the debates surrounding the status and the authenticity of the various sources of its legal authority with a particular emphasis on the madhhab and ahl-hadith based manahij. In particular I examined the various approaches to the question of the nature and the authenticity of Prophetic authority (Sunna) and its relationship with the hadith and Qur’an bodies of knowledge.
In the second chapter I situated the NTS community of interpretation in relation to this historical context and argued that the NTS scholars can be considered as the contemporary incarnation of the pre-modern ahl-hadith school of thought in relation to how they conceptualise the concepts of ‘ilm, Salafism, Sunna and its the relative status in relation to the Qur’an and hadith bodies of knowledge as well as in relation to non-textual sources of knowledge such as ra’y and taqlid. Furthermore, the NTS school of thought was found to advocate a completely textual legal hermeneutic expressed best in their definition of ittibaa’ as an unflinching adherence to sahih hadith which in turn is conflated with following the true salafi Qur’an –Sunna manhaj . Secondly, I tried to show that the NTS manhaj as identified and characterised by themselves is often unspecific and vague, consisting of amalgamations of qur’anic verse and sahih hadith and at times buttressed with a commentary of classical scholars who themselves espouse the ahl-hadith manhaj. Moreover, I attempted to show that the NTS manhaj shows no evidence of being consciously grounded in any theory of interpretation. Thirdly, I maintained that the NTS manhaj is often disclosed by means of oppositional dialectics where it is contrasted in general terms with ‘new methodologies of modernist and intellectuals’ or that of the madhahib or Sufis. Lastly, I noted that one important part of the NTS manhaj is their subscription to the concept of al wala’ wa l bara’ which they consider as is part of the ‘aqidah.
Based on the delineating features of the NTS manhaj, a subject matter of the third chapter, the NTS was found to subscribe to very specific concepts of a ‘Believer’ and “Muslim Woman’. Based upon their ahl-hadith salafi revivalist manhaj I demonstrated in the fifth chapter that, according to the NTS thought, the concept of a Believer was restricted only to the historical Muslim community who recognised the claim of Prophethood of Muhammad, thus forming the view that religious salvation was permanently not to be extended to any other non-Muslim community such as the Jews and the Christians. In the same chapter with respect to the NTS concept of a religiously ideal ‘Muslim Woman’, the study found that such a concept was constructed in relation to that of a secluded and completely veiled Muslim woman whose primary, if not exclusive, functions are considered to be that of a wife and a mother and whose religious duty is to obey her husband at the cost of her religious salvation.
Another community of interpretation within the Islamic tradition that this thesis focused on is that of progressive Muslims. In the fifth chapter I described important themes underpinning progressive Muslim worldview. In this context I maintained that progressive Muslim thought and ‘cosmovision’, is best characterized by a number of commitments, ideals and practices that the adherents of progressive Muslim thought advocate and adhere to. These included a strong commitment to social and gender justice, religious pluralism and a belief in the inherent dignity of every human being as a carrier of God’s spirit. I also historically contextualized and placed progressive Muslim thought in relation to their western predecessors of the 18th and 19th century such as the European Romantic intellectuals and , in particular, with respect to the ideas and values of classical modernists of the early 20th century Muslim reformers whose worldview and manhaj was most closely related to that of progressive Muslim thought .However, also a number of important differences between the latter and progressive Muslims were noted such as the classical modernists inability to go beyond what was termed ‘the theological verticalism’ of the pre-modern embedded religious worldview. I also maintained that progressive Muslims consider the nature of the concept of tradition to be dynamic, humanly constructed, a product of many past and present communities of interpretation. Furthermore, I found that the concept of culture-religious authenticity (asala) in progressive Muslims thought is not based upon a literal clinging to the turath, as in the case of NTS, but on a complex, creative, historical, critical and serious engagement with it. I argued that this progressive Muslims’ consciousness purports to be firmly rooted in usable traditions but is uncompromisingly universal in outlook with the ability to redefine the very meaning of Islam in light of modernity without abandoning the parameters of faith. As such the often employed tradition-modernity dichotomy in the context of discourses pertaining to Islam and Muslims, to which NTS thought was found to subscribe to, is considered as artificial and false by the proponents of progressive Muslim thought. As far as epistemological boundaries and contours of progressive Muslim thought are concerned, it was asserted that they are inclusive of both the pre-modern traditional Islamic as well as the modern episteme. It was also contended that progressive Muslims consider modernity a result of trans-cultural and trans-political inter-civilisational processes. As such I maintained that progressive Muslims, subscribe to the view of civilisationally distinct types of modernity. Lastly, I argued that progressive Muslims distance themselves from the meta-narratives and universalistic claims of the Enlightenment and that they can be considered as adherents of moderate form of postmodernism. Moreover, it was maintained that progressive Muslims strive for a synthesis between modernity and the inherited Islamic tradition and a cross-cultural dialogue based on equal partnership with the ultimate goal of a culturally polycentric world founded on economic socialism and gender equality.
The delineating features of the progressive Muslim manhaj which constituted the subject matter of the sixth chapter, were found to be characterised as being comprehensively contextualist/historical and holistic in nature , hermeneutically privileging ethico-religious values of the tradition such as justice and equality over the literalist (or at best semi-contextualist) hermeneutic embodied by the NTS manhaj and endorsing the view present in the formative period of Muslim thought of not conceptually conflating Sunna and hadith bodies of knowledge. Based upon this manhaj I attempted to show, in the seventh chapter, that the progressive Muslims do not restrict the concept of a ‘Believer’ to the historical, reified community of Muslims and extend and recognise salvific plurality as part of the Qur’an’s and Prophet’s normative teachings and with respect to their normative religiously ideal ‘Muslim Woman’ concept I asserted that progressive Muslims do not consider the practices of veiling, seclusion of women, gender segregation and husband’s religiously sanctioned dominion over his wife to be the part of the religiously normative ‘Muslim Woman’ concept. Instead, I contended that they promote and advocate a an alternative concept that highlights women’s complete autonomy and their full metaphysical, ontological, ethical, religious, moral and socio-political agency vis-à-vis the men.
I would like to conclude my study with one last idea regarding the importance of the study.
In the second chapter I briefly pointed to the fact that the forces of modernisation and globalisation have ushered a new era in which fragmentation of religious authority and democratisation of religious knowledge have resulted in a proliferation of the debates on the very nature of Islam. Furthermore, I alluded to the literature which has detected the increased importance the competing versions of “normative Islams” based on variant conceptualisations and interpretations of the primary sources of the Islamic worldviews are playing in the battlefield for the heart and the minds of Muslims as espoused by a number of different Muslim groups and schools of thought. Although occurring at a much larger scale this contemporary situation in terms of its interpretational fluidity and vibrancy as well as its highly contested nature is somewhat reminiscent, of that of the time of the Prophet himself.[i] The continuing importance of studies examining this contested nature of the Islamic tradition dynamic and its historical roots is aptly summarised with the following words of Afsaruddin.
For the believing Muslim, this historical-hermeneutic project remains a worthwhile and even urgent today. Given the fact that Islam’s formative period remains contested among many, reclamation of this past in a responsible and historically defensible way must remain part and parcel of every contemporary reformist project that wishes to gain broad legitimacy and acceptance….this project of reclamation is being done more credibly today by those we have termed “modernist’ and/or “reformist” Muslims (called “liberal: or “moderate” by others) than by the hard-line Islamists. These modernists have imbibed more than a drop of their illustrious forbearers’ penchant for robust faith, creative thinking, and fidelity to core principles of their religion .In contrast, the illiberal and radical Islamists, for all their protestations to the contrary, have to a large degree undermined these core principles and betrayed the legacy of the earliest Muslims in their nihilistic quest for political power.[ii]
Similarly, El-Fadl argues that the future of Islam as far as Muslims go, for the next few generations will be defined by two broadly defined approaches or schools of thought he refers to as modernists and puritans. He goes on to say that question of interpretation will play an increasingly important part in terms of which one of these will set root among the contemporary and future generations of Muslims.[iii]It is hoped that this study has shed some light on this problematic and has contributed to these debates in a constructive manner.
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