Socio-religous Politics =)

August 30, 2012

In April 2011 an international symposium was held in Riyadh, under the auspices of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies as well as the Austrian Embassy to Saudi Arabia, on the life and work of my father. The conference as a whole was entitled “Muhammad Asad – A Life for Dialogue,” but I was asked by the organizers to write specifically on “Muhammad Asad Between Religion and Politics.” Unfortunately I was unable to attend the symposium so I sent in my written contribution to be read out by someone else at the meeting. What follows is a slightly elaborated version of the argument I sent.

I should begin by correcting a view that has become common among people interested in my father’s life and work, that his conversion can be seen as the building of a bridge between Islam and the West. He has even been described by some as a European intellectual who came to Islam with the aim of liberalizing it. Nothing could be further from the truth. When he embraced Islam (aslama, “submitted,” is the Arabic term) he entered a rich and complex tradition that had evolved in diverse ways – mutually compatible as well as in conflict with one another – for a millennium-and-a-half. Thus in his own life’s work he sought to use the methodology of the medieval Spanish theologian Abu Muhammad Ibn Hazm, he drew often and copiously on the interpretations of the nineteenth-century Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh, and again, despite strong disagreement on various points of substance with the fourteenth-century Syrian theologian Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya, he attempted, like the latter, to integrate reason (‘aql), tradition (naql), and free-will (irāda), to form a coherent and distinctive vision of Islam. His view of Sufism, incidentally, was also influenced by Ibn Taymiyya, for whom it was the excess of Sufis rather than Sufism as such that was the object of reproach. In fact most of what my father published in the early years of his life (Islam at the Crossroads, the translation of Sahīh al-Bukhāri, the periodical Arafāt, etc.) was addressed not to Westerners but to fellow-Muslims. I would say, therefore, that he was concerned less with building bridges and more with immersing himself critically in the tradition of Islam that became his tradition, and with encouraging members of his community (Muslims) to adopt an approach that he considered to be its essence. His autobiography was the first publication that was addressed to non-Muslims (as well as to Muslims, of course), a work in which he attempted to lay out to a popular audience not only how he became a Muslim but also what he thought was wonderful about Islam. His translation of the Qur’an into English, completed in the latter part of his life, was not simply a translation: it was a detailed presentation of his final vision of Islam.

My father was not a political but a religious thinker for whom the Qur’an and Sunnah together formed what he called “the most perfect plan for human living.” It was in this connection that he wrote on the idea of an Islamic state, and even prepared suggestions for an Islamic Constitution in Pakistan in the early yeas of its existence. These suggestions were elaborated in his well-known book, Principles of State and Government in Islam. But his interest in that subject declined in later years when he became preoccupied with his translation of the Qur’an. Like most intellectuals who have lived a long life (born in 1900, he died in 1992) his views evolved and developed through reflection and changing circumstances. I am not able to trace this development here, but I will nevertheless try, by thinking about what he said and wrote two decades after his death, to interpret and reconstruct what I believe was his vision of Islam. In doing so I will sometimes disagree with what he wrote and sometimes try to make explicit what I see as valuable but implicit in his views, and elaborate on it.

The first and most important idea in my father’s vision has to do with his conviction that access to Islam is based on reason, and that therefore argument is necessary to becoming and being a Muslim. When I was a boy he used to tell me that one must try to persuade other Muslims and non-believers not by force but by reason: This is what the Qur’an means by saying “There is no compulsion in religion” (lā ikrāha fi-ddīn). In the Qur’an, he pointed out, God always addresses human beings by appeal to reason. If you read it carefully, you will realize that the Qur’an is continually engaged in argument by means of provocative questions because argument is what it expects its listeners to understand. So when the Islamic message fails to persuade by reason, he insisted that Muslims must live in mutual acceptance with the followers of all “religions,” hence another Qur’anic saying: “To you your religion to me mine” (lakum dīnakum wa liy ad-dīn). God reveals his message at a particular moment in history through Muhammad, “the last of the Prophets,” but he doesn’t control everything in the world. Humans are free to choose what to believe and how to act: “Truly, We offered the trust [of reason and volition] to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains: but they refused to bear it because they were afraid of it. Yet man took it up – for, truly, he has always been prone to be most wicked, most foolish.” (Innā ‘aradnā-l-amāna ‘ala-s-samāwāti wa-l-ard wa-l-jibāli fa abayna an yahmilnahā wa ashfaqna minhā wa hamalahā insānu innahu kāna zalūman jahūlan. [Sūrat al ahzāb, 72].) Divine intervention, my father claimed, is not essentially an Islamic idea; the only miracle in Islam is the Qur’an itself. Hence another of his favorite Qur’anic citations: “Truly, God does not change a people’s condition unless they change their inner selves.” (Inn allāha lā yughayyiru mā bi qaumin hatta yughayyirū ma bi anfusihim. [Sūrat ar-ra‘ad, 11].)

I recall my father often reciting the following verses: “Truly, those who have come to believe, and those who belong to the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabeians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do what is right – shall have their reward with their God, and they need not fear and they will not grieve.” (Inn alladhīna āmanu walladhīna hādu wa-nnasāra wa-ssābi‘īna man āmana billāhi wa-l-yaum-il-ākhiri wa ‘amila sālihan falahum ajruhum ‘inda rabbihim wa lā khawfun ‘alayhim wa lā hum yahzanūn. [Sūrat al-baqarah, 62].) There was nothing, he would say, quite like these verses either in the Hebrew Bible or in the Gospels. And the verses expressed the Islamic teaching that followers of Judaism and Christianity, “the people of the book” (ahl al-kitāb), belong to the very tradition that culminates in Islam. They were earlier revelations (the Qur’an speaks of earlier prophets, such as Abraham, as muslim) that had become distorted over time but were nevertheless to be recognized as having truth in them. They might be doctrinally mistaken but it followed from the fact of a common tradition that they were to be respected. Unlike the historic Christian view, the continued presence of believers in an earlier “religion” in the same tradition (i.e., Judaism) is not regarded as a scandal in Islam. It is seen as an indication of how easy it is to remain stubbornly attached to a mistaken point of view. In the “real Islamic tradition,” he would say, there is no simple distinction between friend and enemy, no single divide that categorizes whole peoples of the world into good and evil. To my father this meant therefore that the tradition of Islam not only urged Muslims to tolerate the followers of all other “religions,” it encouraged them to consider all as deserving of equal respect. And respect meant being able to listen sympathetically to what they had to say about their deepest hopes and commitments. In that sense respecting someone was a way of including him/her within one’s circle of friends. Although in Islamic history respect was generally accorded to what we now call “monotheistic (or Abrahamic) religions”, my father insisted that the beliefs and rituals of all “religions” should be respected. He acknowledged that there were verses in the Qur’an that mentioned Jews or Christians critically, but he held that these were responses to specific historical circumstances in the Prophet’s life and they referred to particular groups whose attitude in particular situations indicated the difficulties of an alliance between them and the nascent Muslim community. Some Muslims in our day might invoke these verses but they were not, he insisted, doctrinal statements about Judaism or Christianity within the Islamic scheme of things. In any case, divine truth belonged to the larger tradition within which all three emerged and not to the actual practice of Muslims, because distortion and misunderstanding of the divine message was found not only among Jews and Christians but among Muslims too.

For my father, however, …

Continue reading & finishing with the commentary…


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