[Reader-list] Rethinking Islam

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Tue Apr 29 07:28:16 IST 2008

Dear Sonia, dear all,

thanks for the ongoing correspondence on the matter of rethinking Islam.

I think rethinking Islam is as important as rethinking Hinduism, or  
Sikhism, Buddhism, Environmental Thought, Automobile Engineering,  
Anarchism, aesthetics, cooking, Communism, transport, biology,  
quantum physics, sexuality and gardening. That's my list for the  
moment, on other days it expands and contracts to include or evade  
other categories. In other words I think rethinking Islam is crucial,  
in a world where the word 'Islam' (like many other words, including  
all the words in the above list) is deployed by people that I would  
both, happily agree with, and totally argue against, but in either  
case have questions for. I like questions. I enjoy the way they turn,  
rise and fall.

I would like to thank Sardar Master Gyani Kirdar Saheb for the  
honorific of Maulavi that he has bestowed upon me, of which I am  
entirely undeserving. The word, Maulvi, (which in Persian, derives  
from the root Maula, in Araibic, which in turn is related to Ma'al,  
or property connotes a certain degree of mastery, it signifies some  
one who has property, or as we say in Hindustani, 'jaagir') and I  
have none; least of all in the matter of Islamic theology, exegesis,  
fiqh or history. Islam is not my property,  not my jaagir, neither is  
'Hindusim' or any other belief system. I am curious. I have  
questions. I try and pursue these questions. I recognize in Sonia's  
post a similar desire to ask questions. I respond to her questions,  
with some speculations of my own. I do not 'know' Islam, in the same  
way as I do not 'know' the history of science fiction in the  
erstwhile Soviet Union, or travel literature in the Bengali language,  
or the internal debates within the Mahayana tradition.These are areas  
I have interests in and questions about. To be curious, or  
interested, is not necessarily to be a master, Kirdar ji,  
nevertheless, in his generosity, mistakes my curiosity for mastery.

Perhaps all you gyani and guni jan have some answers. Since I don't,  
I will stick to what I know best, which is the act of asking questions.

So, here are some more questions.

If the textual substance of any body of knowledge, say scripture, is  
considered immaculate and perfect, how then does one explain an  
inconsistency within the corpus of the text? And I am doing this in  
order to try and be responsive and responsible to Kshemendra's  
request to keep the discussion going in a workmanlike manner. So, In  
the specific history of Islamic exegesis, this is a problem to do  
with the abrogation, or annulment of certain quranic injunctions, by  
others, which means, certain commandments and injunctions are thought  
of as being cancelled by others, as if God changes his mind.  
Typically for instance, the ecumenical spirit of the Treaty of  
Medina, which is the first inter communal constitutional document in  
human history, which spells out a charter of tolerance (between Jews,  
the recent Muslims, Christians, and others) and a very significant  
move towards an acknowledgment of the need to 'iive with difference'  
gets cancelled, by later, so called, 'second' Meccan injunctions of a  
more intolerant nature, that govern the relations between believers  
and others. When faced with questions of this nature, we need to ask  
- "Are we given to understand that the truth of revelation consists  
in the cancellation of tolerance by subsequent intolerance. Is God,  
first tolerant, and then intolerant towards the same people." We are  
also asked to think about the limits and boundaries of tolerance. It  
was problems like these that led the Muta'zilities to think in terms  
of trying to analyse human agency in what had hitherto been seen as  
divinely inspired revelation. They were pious, but intended to try  
and not impose consistencies between pefection and inconstancy.They  
reasoned that  If god was perfect, he could not be inconsistent, and  
if there was inconsistence, it meant that the corpus of the quran,  
needed to be seen as a result of the interaction between divine  
perfection and imperfect, contingent, human understanding. The quran,  
or for that matter, any scripture, any philosophy, needed  
interpretation, analysis and criticism, in order to continue to be  
seen as relevant in the domain of changing human affairs.

I think this holds true, not just for quranic exegesis, but of all  
matters where we are faced with the claim of unchagning authority in  
the light of radically changing circumstances. It is from matters  
such as these that I try and derive a personal ethics of scepticism.  
I am aware of a great deal of work being done, for instance, by some  
interesting young Sikh theologians, primarily in Canada and the  
United States, who are working quite closely on matters of exegetical  
enquiry in the Sikh tradition, fbut whose work will never be accepted  
or tolerated by the 'panthic' leadership, who want to present a  
sanitized Sikhi to their adherents. Of the current state of Hinduism,  
the less said the better, because the entire tradition of  
philosophical debate within the Sanskrit tradition has actually been  
sought to be extinguished by the custodians of the Hindutva, who are  
more busy hunting and inventing enemies (including their minions on  
this list)  than they are in serious enquiry and reflection on what  
they claim to have inherited. Similarly, though there has been a  
lively tradition of debate within contemporary Catholic theology,  
with interesting contributions by feminist theologians, the current  
Pope is a hard core theological reactionary, and is in the course of  
doing lasting damage to the liberty of intellectual inquiry within  
the Catholic tradition. Of course, in Marxism, things are in a mess,  
because the lasting influence of Stalinist, Maoist and Social  
Democratic orthodoxy means that very few self confessed Marxists are  
even remotely prepared to reflect critically on their convictions.  
Had the gentleman known as Karl Heinrich Marx been alive today, he  
would have been thrown out of the vast majority of so called  
'leftist' organizations because of  his 'irresponsible and  
subversive' persistence on asking questions about matters that the  
parties concerned considered settled a hundred years ago.

If you look at some one like Ram Mohan Roy, his interest, in the  
early nineteenth century, while a young student in a madrassah at  
Patna (in the Mutazilite legacy is an interesting case in point about  
how a person utilizes the accidents of their personal life to build a  
corpus of enqiry. yes, In nineteenth century Hindustan it was  
perfectly normal for a nominal Hindu to be educated in a madrassah)  
But it would be considered odd today. I think this is a tragedy. My  
personal opinion is that the more curious we are about the histories  
of those considered to be 'other' the more interesting our  
examination of ourselves becomes. That is why, I am interested in  
Muslims who are interested in their 'kaffir' inheritance, in  
Christians who can talk to Jews, in observant Jews who feel more at  
home with Muslims that they do with the custodians of Jewish  
orthodoxy and in atheists like myself (who have come to maturity  
within a Marxist tradition) but who are nevertheless passionately  
interested in entering into dialogues with those who profess to have  
religious experiences of all kinds. Perhaps this is a personal  
perversino, perhaps not. Whatever it may be, it helps me insulate  
myself from the danger of taking what I think, what I have grown to  
believe, what I know, too seriously. it reminds me, forever, that  
there is always something in the other that i do not know. That zone  
of uncertainty keeps me open and vulnreable to the presence of  
others, and I think it keeps others, reciprocally, open to me. That  
is why, despite the occasional torrents of abuse on this list, it is  
still interesting, and worhtwhile, to have conversations on this  
list, especially with people with whom one does not necessarily agree.

To end, Sonia asked, why Patna, what was Ram Mohan Roy  doing in  
Patna. Well, because, he happened to be living there (his father was  
a minor official in Patna) during his late adolescence, and because  
Patna was the last refuge of a remarkable  school of comparative  
religion which had its core in dissident Shi'a enquiry, who doffed a  
distant hat to the mutazilite legacy and who also produced a later  
medieval classic of comparative religious anthropology called the  
'Dabistan-e-Mazahib' which Ram Mohan Roy was clearly familiar with. I  
am not aware of sources in English that go into this question of  
Roy's affinity with these people in great detail, there are two major  
biographies in English, one by Iqbal Singh, the other by Mary  
Carpenter, and both evade this question. The Bengali sources, with  
which I am more familiar point to these contacts tangentially, and  
crucially, the earliest manuscripts, (the Perso-Arabic works of Roy)  
are either textually corrupt or have been lost. There are some  
Bengali scholars, like the Radical Humanist (and lapsed Brahmo) Shib  
Narain Ray, who touch upon this in their essays (in Bengali) but  
then, they are hardly read and commented upon, and a great deal more  
research needs to be done. I wish someone would do it, because I  
would learn a lot from it.



Shuddhabrata Sengupta
The Sarai Programme at CSDS
shuddha at sarai.net

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