Religion and reason: The challenges of modernity

Religious scriptures are the most revered pieces of writing. They have been recited millions upon millions of times and raging debates have been carried out to determine the one true meaning behind their allegories and metaphors. Two schools of thought emerged as a result of this battle of semantics. One school which has been dominant historically, based its arguments on traditions, invoked the authority of the past, and preferred to use literal interpretation. The other school has been popular among a “creative minority”. It based its arguments on reason and logic, questioned the authority of past figures, and utilised the tools of metaphorical interpretation to unearth the ‘truth’.

During the early days of Islam, this divide emerged between Asharites and Mutazilites. With the domination of orthodox theology based upon Asharite principles and establishment of Shariah laws as shaped by traditional schools of Fiqh, the intellectual currents of Mutazilite rationalism were lost in history. Rationalism appeared again in the form of the naturalism of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and the likes of him, as a result of challenges posed by Christian colonialists in India, just like Mutazilite ideas emerged to resolve the challenges posed by Greek philosophy. Ali Usman Qasmi has explored the trend which emerged with Sir Syed and continued till Allama Ahmad Parwez with academic rigour and analytical arguments. Questioning the Authority of the Past: The Ahl al Quran Movements in the Punjab is his doctoral dissertation presented at Heidelberg University, Germany.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The opening chapter provides readers with an introduction defining the nature and scope of the study. Following is an overview of South Asian Islam in the late 19th century as a result of the colonisation of India. Colonial oppression played an important role in the emergence of reformist religious movements. According to Ayesha Jalal, “far from eliminating politics from the realms of religion and culture, the colonial state did much to bring these spheres closer than ever and reshape them in the process.”

When there was no formal political representation, “interest groups” emerged along racial, linguistic, cultural, professional and religious lines. The colonial state was not only a political and economic oppressor; it also posed threats in the realms of intellectual and religious spheres. The “Eurocentric canons of rationality” and “Judeo-Christian forms of higher religion” became the leading frameworks of the critique of “eccentric east” presented by Christian missionaries and secular orientalists.

It was not only Islam which was influenced by this onslaught of modernity. Hinduism was also challenged, at least on an intellectual level if not very much on the cultural plane. The Hindu reaction to the challenges of modernity can be seen in the formation of reformist religio-cultural organisations such as Arya Samaj of Swami Dayanand.

The rest of the chapters are about the theories of leading scholars of the Ahl al Quran movement, such as Syed Ahmad Khan, Abdullah Chakralwi, Khawaja Ahmaduddin, Aslam Jayrajpuri, and Allama Parwez. Before analysing the ideology of Syed Ahmad Khan, the author gives a brief yet comprehensive overview of the critique presented by the likes of William Muir which became the motivating factor for Syed Ahmad Khan and other logical minded people to build the edifice of Islam on
rational principles.

He questioned the Isnad paradigm of the evaluation of Hadith literature and stressed on the importance of “content analysis”, that is, it is not only sufficient to determine who are involved in the chain of narration of a hadith but also whether the contents of the hadith are acceptable in the light of Quranic teachings. This trend of viewing Hadith literature with greater scrutiny continued in various forms, which later scholars associated with this school of thought. That is why they were given the name of Ahl al Quran, as they gave so much more importance to Quranic teachings than those of Hadith.

As opposed to a historical reverence assigned to traditions by the orthodox scholars, rationalist school of thought takes into account their historicity. It scrutinises the Abbasid influence on Hadith and early Seerat literature as a tool of political gains.

“In the Umayyaid-Abbasid power struggle, both sides tried their utmost to claim their right to power on the basis of any tradition that exalted their virtues and belittled that of their adversaries,” says Qasmi. The Hanafi school of Fiqh also prevailed because of Abbasid patronage. The unique approach adopted by the rationalist scholars placed the formation of ideas and theories rightly in their socio-political context as opposed to the orthodox scholars who presented
different schools of thought as if they were formed in a vacuum without any influence from the environment.

Chiragh Ali in his time was concerned with fresh legislation in Islamic law. Moreover, he declared all the wars fought by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as essentially defensive. This is probably the most important aspect of Chiragh Ali’s work in the
current global scenario where Muslims are being criticised for “violent” jihadist views. In modern times, Reza Aslan has also
tried to explain the issue of jihad from an alternative perspective.

This trend of revisiting religious principles in the light of contemporary issues continued well into the works of Allama Parwez. As he was working at the time of the creation of Pakistan, he was more concerned with the problem of establishing a modern state based on Islamic principles, and determining its duties and rights. During the early days of Pakistan, the power elites were anxiously envisioning the competing interpretations of Islam; they felt the urge to promote the discourse of Islamic modernism as it coincided with their own requirements and visions.

General Ayub Khan supported the ideas of Allama Parwez to counter the political opposition presented by the religious
parties, mainly the Jamat-i-Islami. Similarly, General Pervez Musharraf supported Javed Ahmad Ghamdi to counter the fundamentalist jihadist propaganda by the likes of the Taliban and to promote a softer image of Islam globally.

In the concluding chapter, the author gives brief information regarding contemporary scholars whose ideas are also influenced by the rational paradigm in Islam. By writing this treatise, the author is emphasising on plurality of meaning and questioning the literal interpretation of scriptures. It is only an explanation of what “is” Ahl al Quran movement. It does not dwell upon the question of what it “should be”.

Despite the rigorous analysis, however, the author fails to answer the question of why these movements did not gather mass following and stopped producing eminent scholars. Also, he could not establish the intellectual link between the Ahl al Quran movement and the rationalists of the early days of Islam, that is, Mutazilites. However, this work is beneficial as an analysis of
religious ideas and trends from a purely academic point of view.

The Islamic studies departments in our universities should learn from it and try to conduct research on these lines to
provide unbiased analyses and promote tolerance. Although the book is originally a research thesis, it is equally beneficial for general readers who are interested in the development of various schools of thought in Islam.

Book Review: Questioning the Authority of the Past: The Ahl al Quran Movements in the Punjab
(RELIGION). By Ali Usman Qasmi, Oxford University Press, Karachi, ISBN 9780195473483 : 360pp

Faith and Reason: In a civilised and mature society, the complexities of social and spiritual problems and mysteries of the universe can be understood through philosophy. History shows that in the early stages of civilisation, religion played an important role to unfold secrets of the unknown. Generally, the format of religious teaching was poetry. People achieved spiritual satisfaction … Continue reading »

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