In my spiritual quest that led to political Islam, I had one all-important stroke of fortune. Despite my zeal, I did not happen to get recruited by al-Qaeda!
Instead, I landed in a group called Tanzeem-e-Islami, a Pakistan-based movement that had a few unique elements going for it: (1) it encouraged followers to learn Arabic and engage the text of Qur’an directly for understanding and inspiration; (2) it advocated a nonviolent strategy of change; (3) it called for the “revitalization of faith with an intellectual dimension,” insisting that the ideas of the movement must appeal not merely to the masses but also resonate among the “intellectual elite” of society; and (4) it argued in rational terms that the implementation of the laws of God would lead to a more just world. I internalized these elements of Tanzeemi thought by traveling to learn Arabic, remaining true to a strategy of nonviolence, and pursuing the path of higher education.
Ironically, the fourth point — striving to make the world a better place by establishing justice — became increasingly obscure for me with academic achievement. Higher studies tend to take on a life of their own. The relationship between my life as a professor of Islam in Western academia and my original impulses for engaging higher studies as a religious actor had become tenuous until recently. Yet the desire to make my scholarship directly relevant to belief in God and a life of faith has remained a goal that is close to my heart.
While encouraging adepts to pursue the academic study of religion, the Tanzeem did not realize that the wind blows both ways. If the movement had wished for its ideas to influence the great minds and ideas of our time, it should also have been willing to accept the influence of those minds and ideas to shape and transform its own universe. Among the core lessons that I have learned from my journey is that whereas the Shari‘a may be an infallible abstract category that refers to God’s laws, the actual laws are made concrete in the minds of fallible people. Intelligent and sincere believers can and do disagree on what God wants for God’s creation. Pluralism is a fact not merely among faiths, but also within faiths.
This raises the question: to what authority does one turn in order to mediate differences among people? Clearly, this must be a neutral authority acceptable to all parties, and this authority cannot be God or a particular scripture when the interlocutors include atheists and adherents of diverse scriptural traditions. Perhaps a prophet, when present in flesh and blood, has the right to speak in God’s name. But does such an authority exist in a world without prophets?
Islam and freedom
It might be that an appeal to reason in the public sphere is humanity’s best option. After all, the ability to choose one particular interpretation of religious sources over others requires a capacity for independent discernment. According to Islam, prophets deliver God’s message to people, but they are not responsible for the condition of our hearts or our choices. This is why the Qur’an emphasizes: “The truth is from your Lord; so let whosoever will believe, and let whosoever will disbelieve” (18:29). What purpose would such a revelation have if it did not offer a real choice? Classical Islamic theology (kalām) did not develop such verses into a universal theory of “freedom,” but rather delved into abstract notions about the nature and consequences of human acts, God’s omnipotence, and human responsibility. Instead, particularly in light of American culture and values, what if we were to see in such verses an acknowledgment of the fundamental condition of freedom in which we were created?
Consider for a moment the story from the second chapter of the Qur’an, in which the angels object to the creation of human beings as God’s vicegerents (“caliphs”) on earth because they will “cause mischief therein and shed blood” (2:30). How could this be explained if the very purpose of creation were not in some sense to explore our freedom in the process of an ever-unfolding, entangled, and contentious history of ideas and institutions?
The celebrated Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher once wrote, “Prophets are not theologians.” In my estimation, what he meant by this is that prophets act on impulses driven by the exigencies of the moment. They can live with apparent contradictions, which systematic theologians then later strive to reconcile. It is followers who try to tie everything together into a coherent system of abstract thought. Believers seek black-and-white answers in philosophic systems in an attempt to capture the conviction of Prophets, but these systems are ultimately extrinsic to the prophetic impulse.
Muslims who believe that “Islam” is the absolute truth must learn that they are not supposed to interpret it with prophetic authority. They must relativize their claims in order to contend with counterclaims made by people with alternate understandings of God’s words and ways. Fortunately, this caution is built into the Islamic religious tradition and may be considered an authentic part of the heritage of Islam. Whereas an intense encounter with modernity may lead some believers towards fundamentalism, it may also inspire others to rediscover a spirit of humility in their faith claims.