Sunday, May 28, 2006

Dance partners needed for reforming islam

I'm not the first to conclude that we face four probable outcomes concerning the ongoing problem of fundamentalist islam.

One, they kill so many of us that we stop protecting ourselves and accept servitude to them as the lesser of two evils.
Two, we kill so many of them that islamists abandon their Ghost Dance in the face of insurmountable evidence of their proven falsehood, and accept westernization as the lesser of their two evils. (I suppose I need to insert the mandatory disclaimer here that I find no pleasure in contemplating this option...)
Three, a reform movement emerges within islam itself and through a combination of re-definition of certain terms, removal of certain beliefs, and insertion of new doctrines, a modernized vision of a 7th century faith may survive the recent arrival of the 21st century.
Four, postponing finding a solution so that our children and grandchildren can have a hobby.

Optimist that I am, I look to option three, and reform, as the solution to work towards.
Poking around the internet lately to inform myself as to how such reform may be brought about, and if there are groups trying it that I may support in some way, I was sobered to read the following expert opinion on the subject.
A reader asks a perfectly valid question regarding the obvious need to make a change to an old law, and is greeted with a learned Saudi response.

[Emphasied comments, as well as profound disillusionment, mine]

Does Islamic Law Need Modification?

[Question:] I would like to raise the question of compensation in the case of accidental killing. I want to know why Islamic law seems to discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims. My studies confirm that compensation paid to the family of a Christian or a Jew accidentally killed is half of that paid when the victim is Muslim. How can this be applicable in modern societies where all citizens should be equally treated?
David J.B.

[Answer]....I am grateful to David on two counts: 1) his interest in Islamic law, and 2) his open and clear questions that reflect a genuine desire to understand Islam and Muslims. His questions touch on some thorny problems, but these are only thorny because of our failure to understand Islam properly on the one hand, and the unwillingness of some of us to admit that views other than those we have learned could be acceptable from the Islamic point of view. .....
Our reader’s study... led him to the conclusion that Islamic law, or Shariah, is a divine law, which means that it is not man-made. To start with, any amendment to any law can only be by an authority that is equal or superior to the one that put that law in place. In any democracy, the repeal or amendment of any law enacted by Parliament requires a new act by the same Parliament. In the US, when Congress approves a law, the president can express his objection to it by sending it back to Congress for review or amendment. He cannot amend it himself. When a bill is signed by the president, it cannot be repealed except by a new bill that goes first to Congress before it is signed by the president. This is both logical and necessary. Now, since the Shariah, or Islamic law, is divine, who other than the Divine Being can amend or repeal it?

God sent down His message to mankind through revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad .... It was God who decided that Muhammad will be His last Messenger. God is aware that human life progresses as they learn more about their universe. His knowledge of this fact is not the result of any advancement human beings make. He knew it before He created man. Indeed God’s knowledge is perfect and cannot be related to time or experience. Therefore, when He issued His law, the Shariah, He made it suitable for all times and communities. Otherwise, He would have indicated that this law would be subject to amendment, and would have outlined the procedure for such amendment. What all this means is that no legislative, executive or judicial authority has the power to amend God’s law, which must be implemented in full.

The term “Shariah law” is nowadays used by Western media as though it is a mere penal code. They always speak of it as a system of punishments that are no longer suitable for modern human society. This betrays clear ignorance. The Shariah, or Islamic law, is a complete system that caters for all the legal needs of human society. It provides legislation on all aspects of human life. These are detailed where the degree of human progress and advancement is irrelevant, and given in general terms where different conditions have substantial bearing on the needed legislation. Thus, on social economy, Islamic law provides a general framework based on a few basic principles, while on inheritance, it gives a detailed legislation that cannot be changed.

What this means is that we cannot use the time factor as an argument for changing the divine law. We have to operate it as it is, knowing that we can determine the details of any aspect where only a framework is given, while we have to stick to the law as it is where it gives us detailed rules. Thus, we cannot change mandatory punishments God has specified for certain crimes, but these are only seven according to the majority of scholars. Some scholars with profound insight say they are four. The three discounted ones are drinking, rebellion against an Islamic ruler and apostasy. For the rest of offenses people may commit, the punishment is discretionary, determined by suitable enactments that may differ from time to time, and from case to case.
...We all believe that the Qur’an is God’s word which will never change, and that it is binding on all mankind for the rest of time....

You'll have to read the actual answer to the question about the relative worth of muslims, Jews and Christians, at the Gulf News website. Our focus here is more on the process of altering and hopefully amending the instructions offered throughout the koran.

In one brief sentence, the entire balloon of hope for islamic reform from within gets punctured by the very religion itself: "...since the Shariah, or Islamic law, is divine, who other than the Divine Being can amend or repeal it?" Who indeed? God decided that Mohammed will be his last messenger... meaning, I suppose, that any mere mortal of sufficient authority to create an alternative understanding, comes too late to the party to offer their insight.

Revealingly, the admonition that legislation is "...detailed where the degree of human progress and advancement is irrelevant...", becomes the model to follow for dealing with the earnest reader's initial question concerning treating all citizens equally. Equality, according to this islamic scholar, is irrelevant, as is the progress towards equality.

"Equality", a means of recognizing the universal attributes and aspirations we all share, while not blinding ourselves to our unique differences, has always been an unnatural covenant, which may account for its rarity; the Natural Way of things is for someone to be at the top of the food chain, whether Pharaoh, Tyrannosaurus Rex or Leo, king of the jungle.

Equality arrives from one side giving ground, having power but not using it. The humility involved in the stronger sharing with the weaker is not natural, to be sure. So where has this notion of partnership come from? Mankind seems to have invented a half-solved mystery to account for the emergence of the humility not to eat or enslave the weak, but to enjoin with them as partners, and celebrate life together.

The model of parenthood primes us for imagining a god to be father or mother to the whole human race. Yet the judeo-christian model of "god" allows for subtle differences that as far as I know, other religions do not. In the west, the guiding role of the parent is a temporary one, or at least an intermittent one. On some subjects, age and experience suggest that a child should defer to its elders if it wishes to survive the many choices all must make on a daily basis; the child has little past to measure against, making the future a blank void indeed. Yet, the child possesses one traditional strength that tends to elude their parents: an affinity for the present. It's no accident that children know more about, citing a common example, computers, than their parents do, and that children in general are more interested in cutting edge technology in general than their parents; to the child all is new, equally. It takes a partnership, of shifting leadership, in order for both parent and child to gain maximum advantage and emerge as triumphant as possible. A definition of partnership established by our relationship with the ultimate parental figure... our god.
Western Civilization's ongoing and unparalled shared prosperity, makes it even easier for our equal sharing of responsibilities, since it is possible to now imagine even greater prosperity awaiting us; we're going up, not down.

To truly celebrate the experiences that life has to offer us, to participate in life as an act of ongoing creation, requires a belief system that the above imam's response announces as impossible. To enact any change to the koran and to the belief system of its adherents, the first change must be the ability to change. A parent wanting the best for their child, allows moments where the parent humbly lessens themselves down to the child's level, treating them as equal, to learn from them. A parent wanting as little as possible for their child, never lets go of nature's leadership role, making the child walk behind them, rather than dance hand in hand alongside each other.

I will continue to dream and engender what I can, for self-initiated islamic reform, for despite their differences, muslims are still human, and surely must aspire to a life as melodious and balletic as has been discovered by the West. Meanwhile, I can be grateful for the insight offered by the recent messenger, C.S. Lewis,

[Christians] believe that the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else. And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing--not even a person--but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverant, a kind of dance.

1 comment:

truepeers said...

I much admire your Judeo-Christian perspective, Charles. But I would argue the point of equality a little differently. While I share with you a recognition of how historically unique is the Judeo-Christian perspective on equality, I don’t think notions of equality are foreign to any tradition, since I think they are fundamental to humanity – the intuition of equality is perhaps the very first of those things that are universal.

So I don't think the Islamic scholar would agree with you that Islam doesn't have regard for equality. He would point to the equality of all believers before the word, the law, and in the act of prayer, as evidence of this (and we western capitalists might also note the modern failure of Islamic economics as further evidence for such an equality that resists the kind of pragmatic social differentiations among people that are necessary for a modern economic system).

It is, of course, just that the Moslems treat non-Moslems as unequals because the Infidels don't worship the final or true revelation. This just makes Moslems somewhat more like primitive tribesmen bound by their uniquely correct ritual order – which no one can question and no one can dictate - than like Christians. In primitive tribes, equality is very important. Yes, there are distinctions in one's social role depending on sex, age, and clan. But no one man or oligarchy can dominate the whole, e.g. dictate the ritual; and, in a truly primitive order, wealth is shared as there is no way for banking wealth, let alone any way to imagine such a behaviour. Yet, whatever the great degree of equality or reciprocity within the tribe, one may be readily inclined to treat the neighboring tribe as one's mortal enemies, often with no right to life, etc.

As you say, there is nothing natural about our primitive impulse to equality. So where does it come from? I believe it comes from the very unnatural "nature" of our language and religion (which I believe emerged at the same moment in time).

The child who expects to be treated as an equal by his parent is someone who intuitively grasps that one person's command of language is equal to another's on a certain fundamental level. If I can say no, why should you, Dad, prevail with your yes? We can both rapidly trade our words to declare our desires; in the exchange of language, our desires have equal presence. To the child's way of thinking, it is only the scandal of age and size and all that goes with it that makes one word prevail over another. And it is indeed a great and fundamental scandal, as every temper tantrum at the denial of equality in desire shows.

The child intuitively knows that in matters of language, there is no natural or innate distinction between talkers and listeners. We are all equal in the exchange of words, if not yet in the exchange of things and the consequent economic and social privileges that go with ability in the latter.

Why is this? I think it is because words - arbitrarily chosen symbols - could never have first come into being in the private or individual mind and then be somehow communicated or dictated to a larger public. There could not have been such an unequal origin and transmission for something - language - whose operation is inherently reciprocal.

Our language, unlike the ape's, is not simply indexical: e.g. someone first pointing to an apple and saying "apple", and then everyone learning to say "apple". No, our language supplements referentiality with the sacred and transcendent (which is why I can go on and on as at present: not because I want to win the apple, but because I love the sacred). Our language is full of reminders of a time when "apple" was simultaneously a sign of a specific thing (not of the generic apple, but of something more ambiguously multifaceted, say a certain big red apple that on a special day was a common focus of communal attention and desire), and also a sign of a place where the apple in question was located, and of an act or event by which one special apple was made significant and the word "apple" memorable, indeed transcendent (our words do not actually reside anywhere in this worldly world; they exist only in a transcendent space that we access by taking our attention away from the worldly world for a moment, or for hours of writing!). "Apple" was originally as much an event in which we failed to do what animals normally do - eat apples, with no special significance given to the act - as it was a specific thing. "Apple" was a sign of the transcendent, of the human ability to defer satisfaction of animal desire through the cultural re-presentation (“apple”) of a deferred desire, a deferral that ended an animal conflict and brought about a new kind of human order. That, at least, is the thesis of Generative Anthropology.

Parents and children can all share equally in the sign "apple" because it was originally the sign of something sacred and not simply a thing that mom or dad could control.

Anyway, you may not buy into this way of thinking. But if you do, the suggestion is that there may be little chance of Muslims and, say, Christians finding common ground for a conversation about their differences unless they first agree to some anthropological hypothesis regarding the common origin all humans share. More important than our different languages and religions is the fact that we all have language and religion and that they all must come from a common or single origin.

Now if one can only come to this conclusion if one is first part of certain (and not any) historical tradition (e.g. Judeo-Christianity), then there may be little hope for our coming to terms with traditions that cannot recognize and value a fundamental anthropology that predates their divine revelation; but if everyone can come to agree that we are first humans before we are Jews or Muslims, then we may have a basis to talk. But this will require Muslims qualifying the idea that their revelation is not part of history but simply the revelation that conveyed the original truth that humanity was not, before Mohammed, ready to hear. Only if Muslims can forego strict belief in a uniquely correct ritual order can they treat non-Muslims as moral equals.

Is it possible? I have my doubts often, but how can we really know. Lots of things are impossible before they happen. Like, for example, the idea that all in the community are equals - an idea that would have been completely foreign to the apes who first bonded as equals in the exchange of the first sacred sign, re-presenting the first sacred thing that had come to rest, untouched, at the center of their communal attention.

But I may have this all wrong. My father knows much more than I do about computers and programming, while I am much more fascinated with the past. So who knows how else things are screwed up in our family (:> <:)