By Rishard Najimudeen –
Terror Easter Sunday attack has created an unprecedented atmosphere where Islam and Muslims became scapegoat. Number of accusations as well as suspicions are being thrown towards them. This new phenomenon is unavailable, even though Islam and Sri Lankan Muslims were far from those accusations. History of Sri Lankan Muslims itself is a vivid testimony that coexistence with other religious groups was an influential thought throughout the decades. Coexistence is the predominant belief of contemporary Sri Lankan Muslims as well. Although, Muslims of Sri Lanka have a rich history of coexistence and contributions, the brutal terror attack has caused enough damage to the community as a whole. There are two areas Muslims should consider seriously. First, they should come forward, with enough courage, to respond to the accusations and secondly, they should go back to their religious references in order to provide an interpretation that suits the context. Consequently, they could draw a conceptual framework that will clearly depict as to how a “Sri Lankan Muslim” can abide the constitution of the nation while being faithful to their religion without any contradiction.
This reform process starts with a profound “Internal Review” to the societal structure of the community with special focus on the religious ideologies and approaches they adopt. I would say the month of Ramadan, in which Muslims fast the entire month, is the right time to initiate the discussion on their internal reform process. According to Muslims, Ramadan is basically considered as the “Month for Reform” for numerous reasons. For instance, The Quran, premier religious source, was initially revealed in this blessed month and the particular day was a turning point in the reform project of Prophet Muhammad. Adding to that, the whole month Muslims change their daily routine by performing fasting and engaging in special prayers till late night. Fasting, according to their belief, is not only abstaining from having food and drinks, but also being away from sinful activities orally and physically. Further, they engage in virtue and good practices as well.
In following paragraphs, I would like to highlight only two key points from a lot that should be critically discussed by Sri Lankan Muslims in general, by religious leaders and seminaries in particular in their internal reform process:
A comprehensive reading to Islam/Quran
Islam has been portrayed, intentionally or unintentionally, as a set of rigid rules and punishments. Killing innocent people, oppressing women, cutting hands of robber and some other issues highlighted as the premier contents of Islam. As a student of Islamic studies, I strongly disagree with this argument and I would say that a comprehensive reading to the sources of Islam, Qur’an and prophetic traditions, without any prior convictions would lead to a totally different conclusion. A profound reading to Qur’an, which consists of 114 chapters, and authentic prophetic traditions while taking the context of the revelation into our consideration will give a clear picture about Islam. To put it in another word, throughout the Islamic history, Muslims scholars made utmost effort to interpret the sources and ultimately, a number of disciplines related to Islamic studies have emerged gradually.
Disciplines founded by scholars are considered as the interpretations to the sources and its contents. There are two fields directly related to the sources. Apart from that, four disciplines evolved gradually as interpretations to the religious texts. “Science of Qur’an” and “Science of Hadees” are the two fields developed by scholars, by which they tried to draw a systematic approach or methodology for understanding both Qur’an and Prophetic traditions. Here, I prefer not to elaborate these particular fields in detail. Rather, the second part is quite essential to our discussion. Theology, jurisprudence, Sufism and ethics are the four major sciences established by traditional scholars after an in-depth reading to the sources. This proves that Islam and its premier sources have four major themes:
Theology mainly deals with beliefs in monotheism, Prophets of Islam, religious scriptures, life hereafter and existence of Angeles. Philosophy and logic are included in this domain as well. Meanwhile, Sufism talks about the spiritual aspect of human beings, or it can be described in another word as enhancement of spiritual life. Purifying the heart is the ultimate goal of this process and it has two different dimensions. One is that human beings have to purify their inner world in order to get closer to God. On the other hand, they have the responsibility of purification when they interact with fellow human beings and surrounding nature, to make it prosperous. This spiritual journey can be observed very frequently when we read Qur’an and Prophetic traditions.
Jurisprudence is another significant discipline that was misunderstood and misinterpreted at various levels. Jurisprudence in Islam is basically divided by scholars into two categories: one is “Worships” that includes rituals and mandatory obligations predominantly five-time prayers, paying Zakath, fasting during holy month of Ramadan and performing Haj, and other one is “Social affairs” that deals with social activities such as financial transactions and issues related to family. In other terms, we can define it as ‘Human conduct’. Number of maxims and principles related to jurisprudence were already drawn by the early scholars. For instance, the interpretation to ‘worship’ is certainly limited and the followers are instructed to obey what is mentioned in religious texts while innovations are prohibited in this sphere. In contrast, human interpretation is widely appreciated in ‘social affairs’. It means that religious texts made the basic outlines for the social issues and let humans to take these outlines into consideration in order to apply it in the course of sporadic change in the contexts. Innovative thinking is appreciated in this area. One of the Well-known examples is that Qur’an indicates ‘Consultation’ briefly and allows the interpreting space to human knowledge to decide the most suitable way of consultation.
Remarkably, scholars categorized the religious texts into two, clear cut and ambiguous. Scholars have no room for their own interpretation in clear cut verses, while they have different understanding and predictions in ambiguous verses. Most of the punishments mentioned in the texts are included in the second part. This is the reason why numerous different opinions have emerged in it. As an example, Qur’an mentions that the hand of the robber should be cut. But, scholars have a number of different views over determining who is the robber? What is the minimum amount of robbery? What is the prediction for the group robbery? and so on. It is worthy to note that, Islam emphasizes that enforcement of law and order is prime duty of authority, not individuals. Certainly, the higher objectives of such laws are to produce a generation consisting of well-disciplined individuals and also to promote peace and harmony among its members. Punishments are merely means to achieve those Objectives.
Here I have mentioned only a few principles in nutshell. The important point that I wish to highlight here is that the jurisprudence is not all about implementing cruel punishments. Rather, it is more than what we perceive or what some groups have portrayed.
Ethics is the fourth major discipline developed by early scholars. It deals with individual behavior in relationship with God, one’s self, the family, neighbours and society in general. Particularly, contemporary Muslim scholars have paid more attention to this field and initiated separate department in the universities. Ethical philosophy, with more focus on conceptual and applied, is being further discussed in order to provide dynamic solutions. Euthanasia, suicide, abortion, medical ethics, animal rights and sex are few topics in the field.
Objective based approach to Islam
Objective based approach is a discipline adopted by early scholars and school of thoughts. The approach is different from giving literal meaning to the texts. To put it clearer, we can say the objective based approach is right opposite to the literal approach. After a thorough reading to religious texts, scholars pay their utter most efforts to understand the ultimate objectives of these verses. In some verses objectives are explicitly mentioned, while in some others objectives are implicitly indicated. Scholars have to make their ‘reasoning’ in the verses, where objectives are implicitly pointed out.
Unanimously traditional scholars agreed on that the higher objectives of Islam are preservation of five major themes as follow: Religious freedom, Life, Intellect, property and Lineage. Later on, the objective based approach was further developed and it has reached its maturity stage in contemporary times. Modern Muslim intellectuals, who are experts in this field, have two kinds of contributions in advancing the theory. Mainly, they expanded the scope of each theme. For instance, when they discuss preserving property they talk about the prevailing modern economic system, MNCs and its impact on environmental, socioeconomic and political spheres, economic crisis, poverty alleviation, the relationship between economy and ecology and so on.
And then, they added new themes to the list. Some of them suggested to add social justice, peace, mercy and human right as higher objectives of Islam. Few of them have emphasized on environmental protection and health. In summary, modern scholars are striving to interrelate and build a bridge between both Quranic message and universal laws. At present, this approach has been evolving tremendously.
As we discussed very briefly, aforementioned two approaches are quite essential. Sri Lankan Muslims have the responsibility to conduct self-evaluation as well as to review their methodology they adopted in interpreting religious texts and also to think of being a contributing society in coming days. In addition to the above two approaches, Muslims society should be more concerned particularly on concepts such as pluralism, multiculturalism and inclusiveness in its review process. Hope to write on these in detail in another article.