Postmodernism and the Quran

By Asghar Ali Engineer,

A general perception in the West is that Quranic teachings discourage progress and are incompatible with a modern way of life. Those who hold this view fall in three groups: anti-Islam elements; atheists who are opposed to all religion and spirituality; and rationalists, who consider religious teachings irrational.

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We do not want to discuss here the case of anti-Islamic elements as they have their own politics and cannot be expected to examine Islamic teachings dispassionately and rationally. However, the case of atheists and rationalists is a little different. They are not necessarily anti-Islam but opposed to religion in general.

Many become victims of cultural and linguistic confusion, besides practices which can be ascribed to customs and traditions rather than religion, and instead of understanding the complex relationship involving religion, culture, language customs and traditions, they damn religion straightaway. To say the least, their reading of the Quran is not only partial, it is selective and thus prejudiced and hostile. One must study their writings and reply point by point with in-depth scholarship and patience. Condemnation alone will not do.

I have been studying the Quran for the last 40 years and also have actively engaged socially to bring about reform and change for which I studied various reformist as well as revolutionary movements and also the implications of modernity and post-modernity. I have found that the Quran, if studied from modern and postmodern perspectives, helps us cope with both.

What have been the characteristics of modernity? Freedom of conscience, individual and human dignity, democracy, gender equality and a scientific outlook. The Quran lays stress on freedom of conscience (2:256); democratic and collective decision-making (42:38); dignity of human beings (17:70); gender equality (2:228; 33:35). Numerous other verses urge one to reflect on the creation of the universe, the creation of human beings, animals and so on to encourage a scientific outlook through inductive reasoning.

No wonder, then, that physics, mathematics, optics, chemistry and rational philosophy prospered during the first four centuries of Islam and became source material for European universities and subsequent scientific developments. This has been acknowledged by various European scholars and historians.

However, a decline began to set in when for various political and other reasons (including the traditionalists’ reaction to excessive importance being given to rational sciences by philosophers and scientists), traditionalists and conservatives became a dominant force. They in a way hijacked Islamic teachings, making Arab traditions instead of Quranic values central to temporal problem-solving and formulating Sharia laws.

I would also like to assert here that the Quran is no less compatible with post-modernity thinking; in fact, it is most compatible with it because it makes religious pluralism and multiculturalism the very basis of creation (5:48 and several other verses). It exhorts Muslims to show equal respect for others’ prophets (biblical and others), as all were sent by Allah in different cultures, with teachings handed out in different languages. The Quran is in Arabic only because it addressed the Arabs primarily and others through them. Quranic teachings clearly assert that the existence of different tribes, races, people of different colours and speakers of different languages is acknowledged and owned in deference to the respective people’s identities; there is no room here to establish any superiority; no religion, language or culture has hegemony over others.

Also, another characteristic of post-modernity is to negate absolute hegemony of reason, while modernity tends to be quite intolerant in its rejection of everything extra-rational. Postmodern thinking, like Islam, admits faith and spirituality besides reason as being fundamental to meaningful human existence.

Thus, the Quran, while accepting the importance of material existence and worldly human needs, does not neglect, as modernists do, the forces of faith, tradition and culture. However, it is highly regrettable that our traditionalist ulema, immersed in their customary learning, have lost sight of these important insights of the Quran, and that they rely only on narratives developed in the medieval age to pass rulings on contemporary issues.

It is only a few ulema, well-versed in traditional Islamic learning and in modern and postmodern social, political and economic movements, who can understand universal Quranic insights and project Islam in the right perspective. Most of the existing ulema cadre has unfortunately become reactive and defensive. This has resulted in a loss of original thinking and reflection which the Quran encourages. It is tafakkur (reflection) on the universe which will help Muslims progress, and not defending medieval traditions. The sooner we realise this the better for us.

The writer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.

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