Religion and Society - a Note On Dialectical Relationship

Asghar Ali Engineer

Posted Nov 6, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Asghar Ali Engineer

What is religion? It is simple but difficult question to answer. What is generally considered to be religion may be mixture of many things – superstitions, customs, traditions, cultural practices and so on. What is received generally by a believer is often blend of all this. For a believer all this is integral part of religion. Any violation of any of this is considered as violation of religion itself.

Very few people understand what is the core of religion and what exactly constitutes that core. Even sectarian divisions, result of different interpretations by religious scholars become divine. Religious scholars who are supposed to have better understanding of religion, are victims of such confusion. Not only that to them their own interpretation is ‘true’ religion, they also add various cultural and social adjuncts to their belief system. Such an approach creates various problems, particularly when it comes to bringing about much needed reforms.

For a correct understanding of religion it is not enough to be a theologian; it is also necessary to be a sociologist, historian and cultural anthropologist. Being a mere theologian produces a very constricted view of religion. Thus we need a holistic approach to religion. What cannot be changed is divinely revealed core which often consists of essence of religious doctrines.

It is true that many social, cultural and historical elements also creep into revealed scriptures or any other scripture. That makes theologians and religious scholars feel they are also an integral part of religion. No scripture comes into existence in a social, cultural or historical vacuum. But that does not mean that they become an unalterable part of religion itself. Cultural milieu plays a very important role in giving expression to religious teachings. In fact, the cultural milieu in which a religion comes into existence often gives uniqueness to that religion.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad has made the very apt observation that ‘Din’ is one but Shari’ahs differ from religion to religion. Shari’ahs differ mainly because of cultural differences as different religions come into existence in different cultural milieu. Language also plays an important role. Linguistic expressions are deeply influenced by culture. And as far as language is concerned one must know its usages when the scripture is revealed or written and its usage after it. This is very important for interpretative exercises.

Scriptural hermeneutics constitutes an important part of the understanding and practice of religion and hermeneutical exercise very much depends on the social and cultural influences of the time as well as of contemporary context. Social, cultural and historical elements greatly influence juridical exercises. Thus jurisprudence though a very important area of religion and religious practices, is no less a product of the socio-cultural milieu in which it comes into existence.

Once we understand the historical and cultural dynamics of juridical exercises, it will be easier to accept changes under contemporary conditions. Agreed that it is a highly debatable and sensitive area but nevertheless has to be understood in a way which will reduce resistance to any necessary change. If one maintains that everything or all this constitutes an integral part of religion society will run into serious obstacles for change.

The tremendous advancement of knowledge today has enabled us to develop a proper critique of many so -called religious practices and go back to their historical and cultural roots. The entire corpus of Shari’ah has to be reviewed in this light. Prof. Mujib, an eminent scholar from Jamia Millia Islamia had said in an international Islamic Conference in Delhi that Shari’ah laws are human approach to divine revelation. And when we say human approach it includes social, cultural and historical approach as a human being is a product of all these forces.

The revealed verses of the Qur’an were understood by eminent Islamic jurists in the light of their social and cultural values. Thus we can say that understanding of the Qur’an is culturally mediated. We see this in day to day life also. Most of our theologians never tire of saying that the Qur’an gives equal rights to both man and woman but in the same breath would justify all discriminatory practices in the society.

This is because Qur’anic pronouncements about gender equality are very clear and lucid. But our practices are influenced by our culture and society which do not admit of gender equality. The Shari’ah laws were also evolved by eminent jurists under the influence of their own cultural milieu. That is why there was no unanimity among these jurists on interpretation of various Qur’anic verses and acceptance of ahadith.

One can give numerous examples of this. The Qur’an nowhere mentions three divorces to be pronounced in one sitting. It was pre-Islamic practice among Arabs and was culturally acceptable by them. Though it was clearly banned by the Prophet (PBUH) it again became part of Shari’ah law due to cultural influence. Child marriage negates the principle of the Qur’anic concept of contractual marriage requiring consent of woman to be married. But child marriage was culturally acceptable to jurists of that time. Hence while retaining child marriage in Shari’ah the jurists devised the institution of khiyar-ul-bulugh (option of puberty) according to which a girl married off in childhood could exercise the option of accepting or rejecting nikah on reaching age of puberty. But all these became part of religion for common believers with no possibility of change.

The modernists and rationalists who do not understand the differences between social, cultural and historical elements of religion and core teachings of religion, condemn religion wholesale on account of such practices which go against contemporary sensibilities. I must say here that as theologians exhibit a narrow outlook and justify everything they consider part of received religion, rationalists too, often exhibit a narrow outlook and condemn, in the name of reason, religion itself as superstitious. Both theologians and rationalists and social scientists have to deepen their understanding about religion.

It is also important to understand the role of psychology in religious beliefs. A few rationalists who consider the role of reason quite central in human life ignore the fact that this too is a one sided approach to human beliefs and only appeals to a few rationalists. This approach totally ignores the role of religion as far as the masses are concerned. As reason plays a central role for intellectuals, religion and belief systems play a central role for masses of people.

A more balanced approach would be integrating role of faith and reason in human life. Rationalists believe that faith is blind and leads to superstitions. Religious scholars and theologians believe that reason has no role in matters of faith. Such polarization has not helped much. While rationalists must acknowledge importance of faith, theologians and religious scholars have to understand significance of reason. Human beings cannot do without either. Thus the choice is not reason or faith but both.

In fact neither have theologians been able to do without reason in developing their theologies nor have rationalists been able to dispense with faith in assigning a central role to reason. Theologians would not have been able to develop the corpus of their theologies or religious jurisprudence without using arguments and the use of arguments imply the role of reason. All theological debates have harnessed their intellect. Even to deny the role of reason needs the use of reason and intellect.

Similarly no rationalist or empiricist can do without faith. Those who assign a central role to reason also display their faith in reason. The laws of science based on empirical observations imply faith in their predictions. Even Karl Popper, the great rationalist had to admit that prediction on the basis of empirical data observed over a long period of time has an element of faith. Thus we have observed for thousands of years that the sun rises from the east and can predict on that basis that tomorrow it will also rise from the east and can be reasonably certain about this prediction. Yet, something can suddenly happen and the sun may not rise from the east. An element of uncertainty remains that one in millions of chances the sun may not rise from the east and thus our prediction has an element of faith that it will rise from the east.

Similarly Bertrand Russell, another great rationalist of the twentieth century acknowledges the value of faith. He says that I evaluate most critically any action I intend to undertake and once convinced that it is the only right course, I act upon it with all the passion of conviction. Bertrand Russell was a great pacifist. He was totally against war and violence and he acted on this conviction with faith as intense as of any believer in religion.

Thus we see that both faith and reason play an important part in our life. Faith is as important an ingredient of human life as reason. Either should not be stretched to its extreme. Faith stretched to its extreme can turn into blind faith or worse into superstition. And reason, stretched to its extreme can result in skepticism and skepticism paralyses the faculty of action. If we continue to raise questions as a skeptic we will never be able to act firmly. Firm action requires firm belief or faith in our own action.

Certainty is an important element of action. Reason should raise important and critical questions but should ultimately lead us to certainty for action. When it leads to mere skepticism, it may turn us into cynics. Reason cannot create inner certainty and for inner peace, a state of inner certainty is needed. Here I would like to give an example of Imam Ghazali from Islamic history.

Ghazzali was a great scholar of Islam as well as of philosophy. He passed through various phases in his life. He also turned atheist at one stage. He was an eminent scholar in his own right. He became the principal of one of the most prestigious colleges in Baghdad teaching theology and kalam (Islamic dialectics). He was a restless soul in search of truth. He ultimately realized that philosophy and reason cannot give final answers and can hardly ensure inner peace. One can find inner peace only in faith. Faith and not intellect, can provide final answer.

Not that one should agree with Imam Ghazzali all the way but what is important here is to show intellect alone is not sufficient in human life. Spiritual experiences are also of great importance. As someone has said knowledge begins with questioning and ends in wonderment. It is this spiritual experience which ends in wonderment.

In fact spheres of intellect and that of spiritualism are separate but not contradictory. Rationalists assume that faith and spiritualism are anti-rational. It is not true. Genuine spiritual experiences are often extra-rational, not anti-rational. Science deals with empirical reality, reality which can be seen and observed. Since science deals with observable reality it works on valid observable proofs. It cannot accept claims which cannot be verified.

Faith, on the other hand, deals with another dimension of truth which is beyond observation and is based on intuition, revelation and inner experiences. Buddha had to spend years going through various spiritual experiences before he was enlightened. Could he find any answer through intellect he would not have gone through years of this torturous process. Thus what Buddha experienced and found answers in, was not through his intellect but through his spiritual experience. Thus it should be borne in mind that in human life both empirical and spiritual knowledge play important roles.

For understanding ultimate mystery, the intellect is not sufficient. The ultimate mystery can be comprehended only through inner spiritual experiences. And genuine spiritual experience can never result in blind faith. Blind faith is resorted to only by those who have neither sharp intellect capable of a critical approach nor genuine spiritual experience. Such people believe in miracles and supernatural phenomenon as they cannot face life and its complex problems.

A great mind or a great spiritual personality would never encourage blind faith and miraculous solutions. Belief in miracles and supernatural solutions is often promoted by people who exploit the common people’s faith and make money. Common people need such miracles to overcome their own distress and difficult problems. One cannot throw away genuine spiritual experiences on this basis. Everywhere there are unscrupulous people ready to exploit others. We should expose such scandals rather then denouncing spiritual experiences themselves.

While emphasizing the importance of spiritual experiences and the significance of religion one cannot under any circumstances reduce the importance of intellect and intellectual critiquing of various social and religious practices. A religion must satisfy both what is intellectual and what is spiritual. One should act on the maxim ‘unto intellect what belongs to it and unto spiritual what belongs to it.’.

Most of the religious priests, Mullahs and Pandits behave most unscrupulously and exploit people’s faith in religion and promote blind faith for their own material benefits. Often priests themselves are of low intellectual capacity and genuinely believe in such miraculous practices and supernatural interventions. In many cases they are imparted such beliefs during their priestly training.

Thus it is very complex socio-religious phenomenon. It is not easy to deal with it. We have widespread illiteracy and poverty. For the poor and exploited religion is the only solace and provides inner peace in the vale of tears, as Marx very profoundly put it. Marx described religion as ‘opium’ not in a negative sense as communists believed. He described religion as opium rather as painkiller. Poor masses are ruthlessly exploited and live their life in misery. Religion for them acts, not as much as a spiritual need but acts as a vehicle to temporarily overcome their misery. It gives them the feeling that God will do ultimate justice and that God is with them. Religion also provides them a source of superstition so that they could live in a make -believe world of their own.

Religion for the higher classes serves different needs. For many it answers questions relating to nature and the meaning of life. What is the source of life and what is its ultimate meaning. Another question which often troubles our minds is what after death? Will death mean the end of life or does it continue after death. In the Qur’an there is the concept of aakhirah usually translated as ‘life after death’ Such concepts are more symbolic than substantial and have been differently interpreted. Day of Judgment, Paradise, Hell, all have meanings of their own and beliefs about them vary from person to person.

Obviously science may not accept such concepts and some rationalists may even ridicule them. But science also cannot provide an answer to many mysteries of life, to the ultimate meaning of life. It is not something to be empirically verified but yet is of profound significance for human life. Even Buddha who tended to be rational deals with life after death and talks of nirvana and his death in Buddhist literature is described as parinirvana.

According to all religions life does not end with death. The Qur’an also deals with life after death though different Muslim sects interpret it in different ways. Whatever the beliefs for life after death, life in this world is to be lived and for that intellect is a very important instrument. One can enhance ones prosperity with the acquisition of knowledge and make knowledge beneficial for progress and change. Thus to make life more meaningful in this world and more comfortable one needs the help of intellect and knowledge. Life in this world is a continuous process of change. Changes are not only technological but also social and cultural. Our world is undergoing changes at a much more rapid pace and globalization is bringing different cultures and knowledge systems together. Connectivity in this globalised world is of the utmost importance.

Thus to make life more meaningful, changes in material, social and legal conditions must be accepted within the framework of certain fundamental values. One cannot make life more meaningful in this era without accepting social and legal changes. Our forefathers evolved a legal system within the framework of their experiences in their times. Any opposition to changes in the name of religion cannot be justified.

Values like justice, equality, love, compassion, human dignity, truth, non-violence are immutable but laws based on these values have to constantly change in accordance with the changed times. Gender justice has acquired tremendous importance in our times. Gender roles are fast changing and womens issues cannot be dealt with in the same old fashion. Women today are highly educated and playing an increasing role in public life.  Their role in social, cultural, legal, economic, and even political life is acquiring greater and greater importance. Womens empowerment is a must in our era.

The Qur’an had foreseen this and gave equal rights to them. Allah has created both men and women with equal dignity and made them each others companions. Thus according to the Qur’an men and women enjoy equal rights in every sphere. But during the medieval ages, this ideal could not have been accepted as the whole feudal environment made women subservient to men and this was reflected in Shari’ah laws also, though our jurists could not ignore Qur’anic ideals completely and tried to find a middle course. Thus they could not make them totally subservient to men as it would have been a flagrant violation of the Qur’anic spirit they did make laws to give them slightly inferior status.

All this has to change and the Qur’anic spirit has to be restored in Shari’ah laws through suitable changes. One cannot refuse even meaningful change in the name of religion. Certain elements of religion are undoubtedly immutable but what is immutable should be carefully separated from what is mutable. It constitutes an important challenge for modern theologians.

Unfortunately the Islamic theological institutions are far from suitably equipped to perform this important task. They perpetrate taqlid (blind imitation) and contravene the very spirit of Islam. Islam was a very dynamic religion in its early era and became stagnant subsequently. We have to restore this dynamism of Islam once again and this could be done through creative synthesis of modern and traditional knowledge.

It is very unfortunate that our theological institutions are still teaching Greek sciences in the name of maqulaat (rational sciences). Our ancestors had liberally borrowed from Greek sciences and made study of rational sciences compulsory for students of theology. It was undoubtedly a bold step in those days. Today old Greek sciences should be completely replaced by modern sciences to make Islam a dynamic religion once again. 


Institute of Islamic Studies,


(Islam and Modern Age, November 2007)