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Saturday 7 January 2012

Islam and Modern age


Asghar Ali Engineer

(Islam and Modern Age, January 2012.)

What is religion? It is much misunderstood and complex. So many different factors are associated with it. Some people follow religions blindly, some reject it totally and some as a tool for their own interests and religion in history has often been used as most effective tool for grabbing power. Thus religion arouses very complex and contradictory sentiments. Theologians and religious leaders think it is most essential part of human life and condemn those who reject it.

Also, theologians and religious leaders maintain what they think and say is true religion and divine commands and all others must obey them unquestioningly and anyone who raises question or criticizes them must be ex-communicated in this life and will be condemned to hell in coming life wherein they will burn eternally. Thus wrath of theologians becomes divine wrath.

Religion as such creates complex forces and problems and if it becomes powerful establishment, it assumes even graver forms and then begins the politics to control the religious establishment. The priests, theologians and religious leaders behave as if they are politicians and legitimize their power by invoking God and persecute those who challenge their authority or understanding of religion.

It was struggle between Church and independent thinkers which caused much conflict and ultimately many independent thinkers rejected religious doctrines and also the concept of God. There were two types of revolts against religion and against religious establishment. Some independent thinkers who were studying universe, its origin and development found the church doctrines unscientific and unacceptable and hence rejected them. Many of them became atheists though not all.

Then persons like Martin Luther revolted against the established church and maintained that we don’t need an agent between God and human being. Every human being can establish direct relationship with God. Every human being can understand Bible if it is in his/her language. Thus he translated the Bible into German so that all Germans can understand the Bible. The Church was not allowing the Bible to be translated from Latin into other languages.

Similarly at one time The Muslim theologians were not allowing Qur’an to be translated from Arabic into other languages and when Shah Waliyullah in 18th century translated it into Persian, his hand was dislocated so that he could not write. Similarly Brahmins did not allow Hindu scriptures like Vedas and Gita etc. to be translated from Sanskrit into people’s languages. If religious scriptures were allowed to be translated they will lose their mystique and priests would lose their importance and prestige. Their importance could be maintained only if they were the interpreters of these scriptures.

However, today things are changing fast with spread of knowledge through latest means of communications. People are no more ignorant like in medieval ages. Today knowledge is within reach of all human beings and no more available only to the elite. The printing technology also has undergone revolution and books can be made available easily, even in electronic form.

The other groups i.e. one who was studying origin of universe had much more serious problems with religious leadership or theologians. These theologians hardly knew anything about the universe and its origin and interpreted what was stated in Bible or Qur’an on the basis of their ignorance rather than knowledge of external universe. The scientists, on the other hand, were observing the universe and constantly improved their instruments of observations and drew drastically different conclusions.

The priesthood, on the other hand, had based their opinions on Greek scientists and others and thought their opinions were divine in nature. It was because of such approach that they punished Galileo when he said that it is earth which goes round the Sun and not sun around the earth. Thus an artificial conflict developed between scientists and theologians and it is theologians who had to accept defeat.

Because of such conflict many great thinkers, writers and scientists like Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking and so on, became skeptical about validity of theological conclusion. It is not business of theologians to talk about science unless they have thorough knowledge about it. Still there is great controversy about what is called creationism and evolution and theologians reject the concept of evolution as Bible or Qur’an refer to God’s injunction “Be and it Became” and maintain one cannot challenge this Divine injunction.

But the real question is how to understand these divine words and whether as Sir Syed put it there cannot be contradiction between word of God and work of God; while Bible, Qur’an etc. are words of God, universe and its laws are work of God. One has to reconcile the two and while we study work of God through observations, we should understand word of God through appropriate interpretation.

Until yesterday theologians maintained that the Universe was few thousand years old but today scientists have concluded that our universe is 20 billion years old. Now science has so well developed that no theologian in his senses will challenge these conclusions of expert physicists etc. If they do it would be sheer theological and human arrogance and nothing else. Only way is to suitably interpret word of God.



In view of all these complex questions the key question is what is faith? Is faith, as rationalists and atheists maintain, always blind? Can it be rational and whether wherever there faith, there is religion or religion is necessarily based on blind faith? These are important question and must be dispassionately answered rising above ideological considerations. Both believers in religion as well as believers in rationalism often take extreme position with the result that objectivity suffers on both sides.

What is needed is a balanced point of view.  Both religion and science or religion and reason are essential part of human life. Faith in human life is as essential as reason. But due to human weakness while faith tends to become blind reason begins to be worshipped by rationalists. Both do not understand the limitation of faith and reason. Neither faith nor reason can ever be absolute.

Blind faith is blind first and faith later and something which is blind cannot see, much less understand anything. Qur’an calls knowledge as light and ignorance as darkness and urges upon us to acquire knowledge and liberate ourselves from darkness. Thus blind faith is always based on ignorance and amounts to grope in darkness. It is curse for humanity and since whole of medieval ages we based our beliefs on blind faith we remained ignorant about what is there out there. We could not understand the creation of one whom we worshipped and pretended to admire. We can admire the Creator only when we understand the wonderful creation that our universe is.

Thus blind faith leads us nowhere except in the blind fold of blind theologians and religious leaders who exploit us. However that does not mean faith is always blind as our rationalist friends maintain. Faith plays profound role in human life. Faith and love are two important pillars of our life and both provide us with positive creative passions and these passions provide us with energy that drives us forward. If I do not have faith life will be full of doubts and negative passions which will be destructive.

Doubt or scepticism is important in intellectual world as by doubting earlier propositions we go further and evolve new propositions. But doubt is spiritual world can be very negative and destructive. And would rob us of inner peace. While it is scepticism which is creative in the intellectual world, it is faith which is highly necessary for inner peace and stability in the spiritual world. Thus it is creative collaboration between faith and reason which makes us highly productive and dynamic.

Human life consists of both external and internal world and one without the other is incomplete. Reason is very necessary to know what is out there and faith is very necessary to know what is in here. In west today whole emphasis is on what is out there, on science, reason and material world. It makes human beings, as Herbert Marcuse calls it ‘one dimensional human being. We all the time engage ourselves with the world out there leaving our inner world totally barren. It leads to many psychological crises.

Some people, on the other hand, lay all the emphasis on the inner world leaving us totally ignorant about the world out there. Without knowledge of external world out there we cannot improve our material life which is also essential part of our life. We have to deal with life as a whole, not with one part alone. We need both external dynamism and inner stability, we need external improvement and inner richness, thus we need both faith as well as reason, doubt as well as belief.

A productive personality in psychological terms, is product of inner profundity and stability. Only doubting intellect will make human being more destructive than productive. That is why in Qur’an there is so much emphasis on what is called iman which is roughly translated as faith. Faith gives inner satisfaction but blind faith on one hand, and faith without freedom to inquire is a barren faith, a serious obstacle for change and progress. Faith with right to freedom of inquiry is real and productive faith.

Once we acquire faith after critical inquiry, it becomes a dynamo for action. One cannot act without faith. Even Marxists act out of faith in Marxism. No action is possible without faith and any ideology without action is mere theory on paper. Marx also insisted that what is important is to change the world and world can be changed only if you act. Thus those who reject faith is throwing baby along with bath water. Doubting minds can never change the world.

What we have to reject is not faith per se but various accretions which keep on occurring from superstitious belies, cultural practices and external traditions and restore genuine faith after critical inquiry and only such a faith will become impetus for action. In fact one should be firmly rooted in ones faith. Iman, Qur’an says, is a great source of inner conviction and certitude. While doubt is alright for critical inquiry but certitude is must for action.


Faith becomes a problem when it is reduced to an identity rather than inner certitude. Faith becomes religion and religion creates a community with which believers identify. Religious community is invariably led by some leaders through an establishment and establishment has its own identity and power politics for control. The leaders are more interested in controlling establishment rather than keeping the faith alive and agent of change. Faith thus becomes mere formality.

The believer also find his/her own benefits in religion as an instrument of identification. ‘I am a Muslim’ or ‘I am a Hindu’ no more remains a statement of faith and action or a powerful factor for change in keeping with its principles and values but as an instrument of material benefits or control over establishment. I as a Muslim must get so much share in power or I as a Sunni or Shi’ah must control this or that establishment.

Faith is thus no more dynamo for action according to inner certitude but an instrument of controlling establishments. Thus a truly religious person or a faithful has to be subversive, subversive of establishment. All the Prophets challenged establishments of their time. Hazrat Ibrahim challenged Nimrud and Hazrat Musa Pharoah. Except two Prophets i.e. Dawood and Suleiman, of all the Prophets mentioned in the Qur’an, were from weaker sections of society and fought for the rights of weaker sections.

A person of faith creates new world which is just and compassionate and does not accept the world he/she inherits which is unjust and cruel and exploits weaker sections of society. Faith and hope become powerful instruments or one who seeks to change this world. And one who seeks to change the world also needs knowledge which helps in bringing about change.

Thus one has to decide whether one acquires faith as a powerful instrument for change or equally powerful instrument for controlling a establishment. Religious leaders generally oppose change as stagnant faith is helpful in retaining their leadership. The Qur’anic prayer “Lord increase me in knowledge” is very meaningful. It is ever increasing knowledge which keeps our faith alive and dynamic and enables believers to understand new mechanisms of exploitation by those who control establishment.

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was a great subverter of his time and successfully challenged the powerful establishment of powerful Meccan traders who were busy accumulating wealth neglecting truth, justice, compassion for the suffering of others and voiceless of Mecca had become more voiceless. The Prophet (PBUH) gave them a powerful voice with knowledge and made them aware of their rights and dignity.

Equipped with this knowledge and awareness of human dignity and equality and values of new faith Muslims brought a great revolution and the two most powerful but feudal empires i.e. the Roman and Sassanid Empires were swept away. But unfortunately soon Islam itself became a powerful empire first controlled by Umayyads and then by Abbasids and subsequently other smaller and regional empires and totally lost its vigour and dynamism.

The Islamic Shari’ah also became stagnant over period of time and lost its thrust for justice and powerful instrument of change. Instead, whatever earlier jurists had formulated became ‘divine law’ and began to be defended as ‘divine’ and ‘immutable and cannot be changed until the Day of Judgment. With such stagnant attitude Islam became mere identity and its sects and sub-sects powerful establishments to be controlled by its respective leaders.

No wonder than Muslims who had once led the world in knowledge and advancement of several branches of science from medicine to astronomy to physics to mathematics were left far behind and its religious leaders began to denounce new inventions of science like the Catholic Church had done earlier. For them faith became now a mere identity and each sect of Islam began to defend its own identity in order to benefit from these sectarian establishments.

The Qur’an was also reduced to sectarian polemics and proving the other sect wrong instead of guidance for change and inspiration for creating a new world on the basis of values enshrined in the Qur’an. Otherwise Islam would be nothing more than conglomeration of various sects, each sect being a powerful establishment and leaders of these sects proving others wrong and deserve only hell.

I do not think with such attitude Muslims are ever going to contribute anything to the contemporary world and its progress. Earlier we change our view of Islam and its universal values, our faith will remain only an identity.
 Institute of Islamic Studies,

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