Should a text define a society or should the society be judged based on its attitude towards the text?

In not letting a text define a society but rather working towards making a society interpret and value the text in its secular, humanistic interpretation could be the best way forward for a homogenous, pluralistic society which places greater value on life – any life, every life

When a handful of scholars since the Crusades and throughout Europe's medieval period began translating, interpreting, editing, publishing and commenting upon the immense corpus of primary texts regarding the rise and expansion of Islamic Civilization, they more or less consciously endeavoured to give definition to Islam as a civilization, that is, a unified body of beliefs, ideas and values. This inevitably led to a self-styled promotion of themselves as interpreters of that 'Islamic Civilization' to the 'West', which in turn led to an erroneous intellectual enterprise - that of tending to present Islam as a 'tradition' that was static, timeless, and uniform, and by implication, impervious to the dynamics of change or of historical process.

According to Richard M. Eaton, in his collection of Essays on Islam and Indian History, Oxford University Press, 2000:

"...Moreover, recent critics have sensed in much of this scholarship a political motive. Scholarly concentration on the classical texts of Islam, and especially on those produced during the formative eighth-to-eleventh centuries, encouraged the belief that this particular period represented some sort of 'golden age', after which Islamic Civilization was doomed to a slow and painful decline. And the notion of a declining Islamic civilization suggested, in turn, that Europe's relatively easy conquest of Muslim societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the continued European domination over them into the twentieth, had been not only inevitable but justified."  

The problem with the corpus of primary texts is that they were mostly compiled several decades after the death of the Prophet in the time of the third Caliph Uthman and it can be safely presupposed that while compiling anybody of literature there are sure to have been errors, mistranslations, conflict of interests and linguistic challenges. That subsequent history somehow attached primacy of text to reason and termed the text as infallible is what has brought us all to the "clash of civilizations" and an ossification of the text and its interpretation even engineered hijacking of interpretations to suit various schools of thoughts and jurists who inevitably are misogynistic and theocratic.

But a text can't define or represent a society or its culture. In fact, in all the debates in atheist groups, agnostic ones, anti-theist or even believers' groups, every reasonable believer had this to say that:

"Everything and everyone is inspired by God to a greater or lesser extent. It's not God inspiring us but us reaching out to the universe and world around us and being inspired by it. It can inspire great acts and not so great acts, all are of course flawed human acts and defined by their context."

Hassan Radwan in his Guardian article explained:

"In my opinion, we Muslims need to take the bold step of challenging the very idea that the (scriptures) are infallible. This will come as a shock... but some Muslims are already doing this. Thinkers such as Abdul Karim Soroush from Iran, Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji from Iraq and Saeed Nasheed from Morocco are questioning traditional views..."

He further goes on to elaborate:

"Why is this such an essential step? Because once you stop protecting ideas on the basis that “God said it”, you create a level playing field where good ideas can battle it out with bad ideas on an equal footing. It allows reason to be the deciding factor for whether something is accepted or rejected, rather than: “Because it’s written – that’s why!” No more searching for tenuous interpretations or changing the meaning of words into something else, just so we can avoid the problematic and uncomfortable meanings.

As long as we refuse to appreciate that (scriptures) may be divinely inspired but (are) human-authored, we will be forced to continue playing the game of the fundamentalists and disarming ourselves of the only weapon that can defeat them – reason. Only when we recognize that the (scriptures) are fallible can we free Islam from the prison of dogma we placed it in."

I come back to the initial days of the rise of Islam and why it was so phenomenal and which I equate with the answer to the maladies facing society today – namely discriminatory practices, prejudices, racism, the various phobias like Muslimphobia or atheist-phobia, etc. Since the new message of Islam claimed declared all people to be equal before God, the new fledgling communities bogged down by social stratification in pre-Islamic Arabia, greater social inequities, the dependence of poorer clans on wealthier ones, general disruption, and spiritual malaise, now expected themselves to acquire greater socio-economic mobility. The disenfranchised classes of Arab society and the expanding masses of people when exposed to the message of Islam through conquests or trade or the general evolution of modern nation states such as in the subcontinent of South Asia, found a receptive audience on the early Islamic emphasis on social justice and its rejection of all forms of hierarchy of privilege – especially among the poor, slaves and women.

In not letting a text define a society but rather working towards making a society interpret and value the text in its secular, humanistic interpretation could be the best way forward for a homogenous, pluralistic society which places greater value on life – any life, every life. By accepting the scriptures are not the perfect, infallible, inerrant divine word, we will be able to place reason over revelation. We no longer need to come up with tenuous and frankly dishonest apologetics to explain verses but instead, simply say: the scriptures are not perfect and in this case it is quite simply wrong.

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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