Muslims need to unshackle themselves from the middlemen's interpretation of 'God's will'

Submitting to divine guidance should be a personal matter and the concept of imams has to go. We need to trust our subconscious beings and metaphysical experiences instead of relying on others for guidance

‘Islam’ literally means submission to the will of God and on earth, it is mostly imams and Muslim scholars who have taken it upon themselves to interpret the will of God to us commoners. I remember reading Tehmina Durrani's My Feudal Lord and quickly ordering her other controversial but best-selling book - Blasphemy. A powerful admonition by one of her minor characters to her protagonist stands out for me to this day, ''Read the book of God, read it for yourself and understand''.

That was the very moment I understood the significance of taking back your will and freedom of choice from someone who acts as an interpreter of divine things - things which one can experience only after having undergone a personal spiritual journey like the Buddha, some Axial age seers and shamans, Sufi saints and other modern enlightened souls. Apart from the fact that most of the holy scriptures are in languages either not commonly spoken or not understood, it is also true that anything always wanting good translators and commentators soon rolls into the sphere of personal preferences and prejudices of the one doing the translation or interpretation.

I was searching for influential Muslim thinkers of the world and all that the lists could throw up were either Middle-Eastern kings, dictators or Islamic scholars with the exception of a Baroness (not much of a claim to being a thinker/intellectual) and a few Queens. Almost all the ones listed were imams, or scholars or clerics or experts in Islamic theology. Not that they do not wield influence or contribute to the pool of ideas whether good or bad, but I couldn't help thinking that almost all of them had or have followers who like ''sheep'' just keep back-patting them and being ''yes-men'' generally do not ever get into public debates criticizing ideas among themselves.

Take the case of Egypt's Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, a Ph. D. in Islamic philosophy from the Paris-Sorbonne University, also having served as Grand Imam of Egypt (supreme interpreter of Islamic law), formerly served as president of Al-Azhar University (the world's leading institute of Islamic learning) for seven years and currently its Grand Imam. In his recent article, Raymond Ibrahim,  an American research librarian, translator, author and columnist, lays bare the double-speaking hypocrisy or ''taqiyya'' that influential Muslims whom the West sees as ''moderates'' employ while explaining Islam to a non-Muslim audience and at the same time upholding their supremacy over Islamic jurisprudence and law.

Raymond writes:

'During another Ramadan episode, he said, "Contemporary apostasy presents itself in the guise of crimes, assaults, and grand treason, so we deal with it now as a crime that must be opposed and punished."

While his main point was that those who do not follow Islam are prone to being criminals, he especially emphasized those who exhibit their apostasy as being a "great danger to Islamic society.  And that's because his apostasy is a result of his hatred for Islam and a reflection of his opposition to it.  In my opinion, this is grand treason."

Tayeb added what all Muslims know: "Those learned in Islamic law [al-fuqaha] and the imams of the four schools of jurisprudence consider apostasy a crime and agree that the apostate must either renounce his apostasy or else be killed."  He even cited a hadith, or tradition, of Islam's prophet Muhammad calling for the execution of Muslims who quit Islam.

Meanwhile, when speaking to Western and non-Muslim audiences, as he did during his recent European tour, Tayeb tells them what they want to hear.  Recently speaking before an international forum, he asserted that "[t]he Quran states that there is no compulsion in religion" and that "attempts to force people into a religion are against the will of God."  Similarly, when meeting with the Italian Senate's foreign policy commissioner, Pier Ferdinando Casini, and his accompanying delegation, Tayeb "asserted that Islam is the religion of peace, cooperation and mercy. ... Islam believes in freedom of expression and human rights, and recognizes the rights of all human beings."

While such open hypocrisy – also known as taqiyya – may go unnoticed in the West, in Egypt, human rights groups often call Tayeb out.'

Tayeb may appear to discuss dissenters within Islam in a feeble attempt to show the open-mindedness of scholars and clerics to tolerate criticism within Islam but the truth is that such dissenters are vehemently criticized by many clerics and even fired from Al-Azhar as was Dr. Ali Abdel Raziq, a reformer, and former professor at Al-Azhar who wrote a popular but controversial book in 1925, one year after the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate. Titled, in translation, Islam and the Roots of Governance, it contains Raziq's argument against the idea of resurrecting the caliphate, saying Islam is a personal religion and that should no longer be mixed with politics or governance.  

So coming back to the practice of submitting the will to divine guidance, which should be a personal matter, the concept of imams or middlemen (it is mainly men) as I like to call it, has to go and spirituality retaken as the domain of our subconscious beings and our metaphysical experiences instead of relying on others for guidance. Imams should be under scrutiny too and considering that they are at the helm of leading the youth astray as reports and investigations into mosque activities reveal with every single passing day, the onus is on the masses to reject this kind of blind ''submission''.

Christianity too gained hugely in Reformation once the concept of intervention by a priest through the ''sale of indulgences'' was demolished by Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer who by translating the Bible into common German gave the power of divinity back to the people. In the modern concept of struggles for freedoms, and accessions and secessions, I would say this is the first step to freedom or ''azadi'' as they call it in my hometown.

For that matter, the step can further develop into a much more liberating factor by not submitting to interlocutors, or interpreters or experts on dominant or majoritarian narratives, which are coming out from insulated societies where dissenting is considered equivalent to treason. Seek the truth for its own purpose, rather than follow an agenda! That should be the motto and the will!

Arshia Malik is a Srinagar-based writer and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflict in Kashmir. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature. She is currently writing a book about her life as a female in Kashmiri Muslim society

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