Book Review: Islam in Post-Modern World (Asgar Ali Engineer)

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Sep 29, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Book Review: Islam in Post-Modern World (Asgar Ali Engineer)

By Yoginder Sikand

Name of the Book: Islam in Post-Modern World—Prospects and Problems
Author: Asghar Ali Engineer
Publisher: Hope India, Gurgaon (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address))
Year: 2008
Pages: 159
Price: Rs.350
Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

The title of this book is, admittedly, somewhat misleading. What exactly is ‘post-modern’, a term that the book purports to address, but nowhere does it define what the author means by it? Can one talk of a ‘post-modern’ world when for vast numbers of people ‘modernity’ (whatever that may mean) itself seems far out of reach? That said, this immensely absorbing set of essays, the latest of Asghar Ali Engineer’s writings on socially engaged understandings of Islam, is a must for scholars of Islam as well as for the general reader.

Engineer begins by lamenting the fact that hardly any ulema or Islamic scholars have been able to suitably respond to the myriad challenges that ‘modernity’, ‘post-modernity’ and ‘globalisation’ have generated. He bemoans the lack of ‘original’ and innovative Muslim thinkers, and claims that most Islamic intellectuals (including, but not only, the ulema) today simply repeat, debate and discuss medieval texts and their prescriptions. By these he means texts other than the Quran and the Traditions attributed to the Prophet, that were written by the medieval ulema, including works based on their own reflections of these two principal sources. While he admits that there are indeed things of value in these texts, he points out that their authors were products of their own times and of their particular historical, social, economic, cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. All these indelibly influenced their understandings of the Islamic scriptures. Hence, he argues the need for Muslim scholars today to reflect on the Islamic scriptural resources afresh in order to seek to relate them to contemporary realities. This, he says, is the urge that underlies the various essays, on a disparate range of themes, contained in this book.

The first essay in the collection, titled ‘Islam as Religion and Islam as History’, reflects on the obvious fact that the history of Islam, as indeed of all other religions, does not conform to its teachings. Engineer suggests that, like other religions, Islam should be understood not according to the actions of those who claim to follow it, but, rather, by what it preaches. However, he adds, Muslims seeking to counter widespread anti-Islamic prejudice cannot do so simply by quoting Quranic verses or glorifying Muslim history. Instead, he suggests the need to objectively and dispassionately examine the history of Islam as historically understood by Muslims over the centuries. Here he talks about Islam at the time of the Prophet, with its thrust on liberation of the oppressed and on social equality, and how, when Arab and other Muslim empires were later established, interpretations of Islam underwent a shift in order to justify feudal authoritarianism and monarchical rule, resulting in notions and laws that sought to justify the subordination of the poor, women and people of other faiths. Engineer sees this as, in a sense, a revival of the pre-Islamic Jahili traditions and as a betrayal of the
actual spirit of Islam.

The second essay in this collection discusses the vexed issue of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, and of how Muslim scholars have responded to the question. ‘Modernity’, writes Engineer (without, however, defining what he means by the term) is often resisted because of insecurities, fear of change, and because it might threaten to undermine the vested interests of leaders as well as their worldviews. Technological changes are slowly accepted, but changes in traditional understandings of religion are often resisted strongly. This is the case not just with many Muslims alone, but with others, too. On the other hand, Engineer stresses that when it started out as a powerful religious and social movement, Islam, like other egalitarian religions such as Buddhism and Christianity, actually wrought considerable change, challenged old traditions and beliefs, and championed social equality and sensitivity to suffering. He appeals for a revival of this spirit to infuse contemporary understandings of Islam, as indeed other religions.

‘Modernity’, Engineer somewhat simplistically claims, is based on reason, and so is the Quran, arguing, therefore, that a Quranic or Islamic form of ‘modernity’ is indeed possible. The Quran, he notes, appeals to the intellect along with faith, and opposes blind faith. He contrasts this to what he sees as the blind conformity enjoined by many traditional ulema who, so he claims—and here he makes a very broad and perhaps untenable generalization—refuse to accept change even within an Islamic framework. He writes—and, again this can be debated—that they regard the solution of every problem as lying solely within received tradition, considering any departure as sin. This, he says, is because they look upon medieval understandings of Islam as formulated by the classical jurists and theologians as binding for all future generations as well, refusing to recognize the human element that went into informing their understandings. Another reason for this, he says, is the influence of what he regards as fabricated Hadith reports attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. In this regard, he earnestly pleas for a revival of the tradition of ijtihad, a practice that was stressed by the Prophet himself, to creatively respond to contemporary and changing developments and concerns. Change, he notes, is inevitable. God, he opines, creates ever-new situations that take the form of new challenges for people to creatively deal with, and not for them to escape from or to respond to simply by repeating answers supplied by medieval scholars. Hence, he argues, the need for a new, contextual fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence and new understandings of theology.

One of the major challenges at the global level today is that of inter-faith relations. In the third essay in the book Engineer critiques the notion, commonly held by many Muslims as well as people of other faiths, that Islam is viscerally hostile to other religions and their adherents. This understanding, he says, emerges from not examining certain Quranic verses as well as historical instances of intolerance in their particular historical contexts. Critiquing this understanding, he evokes the Quranic dictum that there is no compulsion in religion and that a true Muslim must believe in all the prophets of God, with each ‘nation’ having received at least one such prophet. To further stress his point, he refers to the Quran as laying down, ‘Everyone has a direct to which he turns (himself), so vie with one another in good deeds’ (2:148). Likewise, the Quran adds, ‘For every one of you We appointed a law and a way. And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you. So vie with another in virtuous deeds’ [5:48]. Engineer writes that this means that the Quran accepts the plurality of religions, ways of life and laws, and treats this as a challenge to humanity to coexist with tolerance and strengthen peace and morality. This, he says, is an eminently practical approach to other faiths and inter-community co-existence.

At the same time, Engineer recognizes that medieval jurists or fuqaha often subverted this Quranic approach to people of other faiths in order to justify their subordination. Hence, he argues, ‘[The] whole corpus of fiqh in respect of Muslims and non-Muslim minorities must be reviewed and [a] new fiqh should be evolved which should fit into [the] new context. The concept of dar ul-harb [domain of war] and dar ul-islam [domain of Islam] are totally outdated today’ (p.42). This new fiqh that he calls for should, he says, champion human rights, respect for other faiths and their religions, and place the spirit of religion, including such cardinal values as love, compassion, peace, inter-community solidarity and social justice, over mere ritualism.

This new fiqh and new understandings of theology would have major implications for how the normative status of Muslim women is understood, as the next two essays in the book make clear. In the first of these essays, Engineer broadly surveys the history of what he calls patriarchal understandings of Islam on the part of male religious scholarly elites, a project in which women had little or no role after the first few decades of Islam. He seeks to retrieve the spirit of gender justice and equality that he sees the Quran and the Prophet’s own life as having been informed by, and cites with approval the efforts of contemporary women Islamic scholars to develop gender-sensitive understandings of their faith. The second of these essays deals with the controversial issue of fabricated so-called Hadith reports attributed to the Prophet considerably after his death. Engineer writes that their purpose was to justify and strengthen male domination and to undermine the gender equality enjoined upon by the Quran. He calls for Muslim scholars to develop new understandings of women’s status and roles and inter-gender relations based essentially on the Quran.

Half a dozen or so other articles also included in the volume reflect the same basic concern for developing a socially engaged understanding of Islam related to a host of other issues, such as Hindu-Muslim relations, AIDS, the environment and Islamophobia, as well as critiquing what Engineer regards as erroneous and un-Islamic interpretations by self-styled radical Islamists and diehard Islamophobes.

This book comes straight from the heart and speaks to the heart as well. The clumsy grammar that is evident right through the book (and this is a feature of many of Engineer’s writings) may thus be excused. As a plea for rethinking traditional understandings of religion to address a wide range of contemporary challenges, this book excels.