A friend of mine — possibly beyond crisis-of-faith mode and now savouring full-blown rejection — regularly sends me videos featuring the idiocy of presumed scholars, past and present, as they mangle religion and make a mockery of it with absolute sincerity and conviction. His contention, I think, is that their lunacy is proof of the degeneracy of our faith as a whole. In sending me these videos, my friend hopes that I will join him in his rejection, embracing disbelief again, liberating myself from the yoke which he imagines constrains me, as he believes it constrained him.
Actually, he is not alone. There are others, in various stages of doubt, who confide in me, sharing their upset at the imagined community they thought themselves part of. The bizarre rulings of Medieval scholars gnaw away within — as they should, clashing as they do with the natural ethics of modern man — until they decide to cut themselves off from faith completely. From time to time I invite them to join me in my weekly pilgrimage to sit in another setting, to imbibe other wisdom and reflect as the heretics do in their pursuit of truth and faith, but never do they accept, for they are content with their morass. In truth, their doubt pleases them, as it pleased me once as an agnostic youth, as I recalibrated my soul from childish piety to adolescent introspection.
Doubt has its place, of course. To me, the road to truth begins with doubt. The doubt essential to faith, as Lesley Hazleton puts it. Or as René Descartes had it: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” To question everything, I think, is in fact what drives us forward. Ironically, it is what our Book tells us to do: to ponder. “Do they not contemplate within themselves?” And: “What, do they not reflect upon the Qur’an, or are there locks upon their hearts?”
Some of these folk, for as long as I have known them, have bounced from group to group, seeking belonging. To me, faith has never been about that: it is about our relationship with our Lord, instead. Each of us will stand to be judged by our own deeds alone, not as part of a collective. The desire to be a part of a movement or a community of the likeminded is a deceptive diversion from reality: it obscures what we are really called to, replacing personal ethical responsibility with group-think. In contrast to what is commonly taught amongst Muslims, the Qur’an cautions against following herd instinct: “If you obey most people on earth, they will take you away from the easy path of God.” Belonging, really, is not what it is all about.
Sometimes I am surprised how little these friends of mine know me, as they bombard me with the ramblings of men linked to me only by a very generic profession of faith. We are not called upon to embrace what others say out of a sense of pious solidarity. The truth is just truth; it is founded on the argument, not on belonging to a particular group or ethnicity. None of this is new.
Over a thousand years ago there lived a renowned poet, held by some to be the best of believers and by others to be the worst of the worst. His worldview put him in direct conflict not only with the state and wealthy businessmen, but also with the famous scholars of the era. He told his contemporaries that they did not need to go for hajj twenty times, but rather should look after the poor and destitute. In saying this he was undermining the image of the wealthy, and those that backed them.
Nevertheless, some very famous people supported him, for they saw that the accusations did not stand. To them, he had the most brilliant mind, only the people of his time were not ready for him. In the end he was judged a heretic, and was tortured and killed, his dead body then desecrated for maximum effect. His opponents said that he was killed by the Sword of Shariah. His supporters saw that he was killed because he stood against the interests of those who had no desire to tackle the corruption of the wealthy and powerful.
Clearly, times have not changed very much. In some nations, a man’s reputation can be despoiled by word of mouth alone: by millionaire media moguls unceasingly repeating claims over and over until they are thoroughly discredited. In other nations, good people are incarcerated for long periods of time on dubious charges, or put to death under the catch-all crime of supporting or aiding terrorism, when in fact they are voices of reason, resolutely striving for peace and justice.
Friends who have chosen to disbelieve forget what they once held to be true: that learned men, however numerous, cannot possibly speak for all of us. Whereas once they were able to differentiate between the opinions of men, now they leap upon every awkward ancient ruling as yet further proof of our immorality, confirming in their mind their decision to turn their backs not just on the particulars, but on the whole itself. They have swallowed the uncompromising narrative of the traditionalists, led to believe that finding something in an old text is proof that people have a right to do what they are doing. But it is not like that at all.
If only we could understand how the politics of the day — ancient and modern — influences the world around us. If only we would appreciate the effect of influential people on the lives of ordinary people. The Quraysh, for example, in the form of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, ruled for five hundred years, exerting a huge influence on Islam. Powerful people, then as now, can always find a qadi to rule on their behalf. Politics has and has always had a massive impact on religion; it is not true to say the scholars of the past always worked independently of politics. Many scholars of the past abrogated peaceful verses of the Quran in order to make war perpetual, enabling religious empires to fight offensively to expand their borders without pause. It does not matter that, while recognising that people have the right to defend themselves, many verses of the Quran clearly oppose this. Scholars are often a product of their environment, sometimes cut off from realities.
There was no sword in Mecca, only an exchange of ideas. The establishment figures of Mecca opposed these ideas, but the Prophet, peace be upon him, persevered. Some ideas, such as freeing people from slavery, took centuries to change. When you are a free man and think for yourself, you become very dangerous. When terrorist groups perpetrate a crime, they have to justify it, so they bring an argument written centuries ago to vindicate their actions. Both my companions and I are are well versed in those arguments, seeing through the risible apologetics that seeks to disavow their despicable actions whilst simultaneously embracing all that they have inherited of tradition. These groups are a tool used to destroy a region, dressed up in the garb of religion: they use well-known hadith to justify themselves. All the way through history, people in authority have engineered groups like this to serve their own agendas. Some of the hadith employed are also clearly engineered; fabricated hadith of this kind can teach us a lot about the politics of the distant past too.
What my friends dispatching painful videos fail to recognise is that sometimes a so-called weak opinion is the one to take. We have to look at the arguments and judge it on their merit: on that basis we may accept it or reject it. It does not matter if an opinion is old. Religion — in what is understood and passed on — is one of the most powerful tools of control there is. If we do not understand this, there is no hope in us plotting a forward course.
It is reported that Ali once said: “Problems don’t change you, they merely reveal you.”
All around us, people put obstacles in our way so that we cannot think for ourselves. One such obstacle is the glorification of scholars past and present — behaviour which, once again, the Qur’an clearly censures. The loud gatekeepers of faith close all doors to look critically at tradition and criticise the works of others. If it is said: “We need to revise everything in human relations,” someone will retort that the past is sacred. They see no need for constructive criticism of opinions arrived at in the distant past, at the height of great empires or in the midst of corrupt dynasties. If we said that we have to look at what is harmful for us, they will say, no, it is our mindset that is at fault.
But the truth is this: we are not looking for a perfect world. Religious cults provide mere escapism, dreaming of utopia. Eschatology, borne not of the Prophet, but of the traditions of the people before him, is used to manipulate people. We are not trained to find information for ourselves, so we do not find it. We become dependant instead. But society needs more odd cases — people who are willing to look into matters for themselves. Some ideas are cancerous; how do you fight them? Some problems are very common, across nations and traditions. Seeing things for what they are is not easy.
The door for investigation is not closed. Some Muslim may hold this opinion, but that does not mean it is Islamic. You can be the first person to talk about something and it can be Islamic, for Islam encourages us to research. An orientalist might be attacking Muslims, but not Islam, and may have a valid point. You have to investigate. Studying the past is important, but copying the past is not the way forward. No one has a hold of the whole truth. It scares people when they discover that they don’t know it all. You have to keep your feet on the ground, for there are a lot of things we do not know. Read across the board, even if it hurts.
The people we desire to follow are the Prophets, peace be upon them, the Siddiqin (people of truth), the Shuhada (people who stand for truth) and the Saliheen (people who live in harmony with the rest). The door of prophethood is closed, but the Siddiqin, Shuhada and Saliheen are still present and found in different places. They are positive people, who have a good influence on the world. If I have any advice for my friends who confide in me their doubts, it is this: find for yourself companions amongst the people of truth, the people who stand for truth and the people who live in harmony with the rest. Everything else can be left aside.