Thursday, July 24, 2014

Liberal Islam

I have just listened to a Humanitas lecture by Prof. Abdou Filali Ansary where he suggests some very interesting things about Islam today.  I had to follow his lecture in bits and pieces as having a full hour uninterrupted is a rarity for me, and if I can find a free hour in the future I will hide somewhere and listen again. He makes important points, not heard much today in the roar of radical Islam that fills the western media, and dare I say, the Islamic media also. 

He begins by looking not so much at European reactions to Islam, but at Muslim visitors to Europe as long ago as the 16th century.  He begins there as this talk carefully circumambulates modernity. Modernity is, of course,  a very slippery term when you dig below the surface, but is useful as clearly something changed in European, and today’s child of Europe, the West with the advent of ‘modernity’.  Prof. Ansary does mention here and there in his talk western perceptions of Islam, but what interests him more are Islamic reactions to modernity and therefore the West.  He details the reactions of some Muslim visitors to Europe as modernity takes hold and notes their surprise at the profound changes in world view  and mentalit√© that are intrinsic to modernity.  

He goes on to speak about the nature of modernity in the Islamic world.  Where in the West, the enchanted world (to borrow from Charles Taylor) is replaced gradually by a scientific outlook, which reaches its climax with the birth of social sciences in the late 19th century, in the Islamic world modernity means something quite different.  Modernity there is a search and movement to restore ‘normative’ Islam. Muslim intellectuals, many affected by the primacy of logic, reason and the use of observed social evidence see an Islam that had departed from the pure teachings of the Prophet and the ‘golden age’ of the Rashidun.  They see an Islam that had syncretically melded Islam with local cultural practices and beliefs, a mongrel and hybrid form, not pure. 

Syncretism is a term that is under attack and often rejected these days, but I have yet to find a workable replacement for what it signifies.  In the university course I teach on Religion and Society in the modern western world, I have students consider such things as Tequitqui in the former Aztec lands, or the very individual case of an Oji-Cree Anglican priest active in his northern Ontario parish in the 1950s, 60s and 70s who also functioned as a traditional medicine man. Of course his Anglican bishop knew nothing of his parallel track job, but there it was.  This fact of syncretism, whether it can be defined as a melding of beliefs and local cultural practices, or an acceptance in some locales of parallel belief systems existed also for any other religion that spread beyond its original socio-cultural setting.  

Modernity then, for Islam, was not the rejection of religion as in the West, and its replacement by the secular religion of Science (I use the term religion here stressing its etymological roots as a social apparatus that provides a common worldview for a society, that is in functional rather than substantive terms). Modernity for Islam was a move by intellectuals and activists (often the same persons) to restore a normative Islam and scale away the syncretic accretions attendant on expansion over the centuries.  The way this is happening dominates the media:  ISIS currently in the news with its claim to restore the Caliphate; the Muslim Brotherhood, a much older organization battling within Egypt; Wahabbism the first of these, still  in control in Saudi Arabia. 
Abdou Filali Ansary is none of these.  He points to a different path to Muslim modernity, one little noticed, but perhaps needing to be so noticed.

He refers to this path as Liberal Islam.  It is found in  a handful of individual scholars who reject the traditional approach to the Qur’an, which is to regard it as a set of discrete laws, where each Surah is sealed off from the other and applied to modern situations.  These thinkers argue that true Islam resides in the spirit, the holistic spirit of Islam that should guide Muslims in the modern world. Ansary is not hopeful that this will happen, as the purveyors of apologetics - the conservative and traditional interpreters of Islam, control education in the Muslim world and each new generation of teachers is trained in the same system.  Also he notes that they use language that appeals to the masses, either to fight against despots in the Islamic world, or to fight against the West. The Liberal Muslim intellectuals do not translate their ideas in such a way as to appeal to the  masses. 

A good place to start an exploration of Liberal Islam can be found in this book:

and here:

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