We live in an interesting time. It is a time of irresolvable contradictions. Incompatible views and beliefs live side by side in both harmony and tension, and sometimes they even find their way into one and the same person. The mere presence of contradictory views does not always lead a person to find ways to reconcile them. The reconciliation requires great courage and skill. In fact, the bigger the contradictions are the greater the apathy to find the resolve to solve them. One goes through life minimizing their impact to an almost imperceptible minimum. If they did matter the person would be drawn to an existential problem and after several failed attempts and despairing of finding a viable solution would either go on to live as if they did not matter or else would chose one side and repress the other. I suspect this is what most people do, particularly if they do not have the time or the resources to go on a despairing search for answers.
This, in itself, is not a problem for society, though it may cause a considerable headache to an individual. It becomes a social problem, however, when a person thinks that other people’s views are wrong because his views are right. Such attitudes which tend to impose a uniform understanding of a certain topic on the rest of people negate the right of pluralism and the right to hold as true false opinions.
I see the recent debate that was sparked by Islam Net, and nicely presented by Minerva, on the question of death penalty through this prism. Fahad Qureshi, the leader of Islam Net, has said that those who deny death penalty in Islam are not Muslims and accuses his opponents, namely Mohamed Abdishazan, of ignorance. His opponents accuse him of hijacking Islam and some have even questioned his ability to lead Islam Net. Leaving aside the matter of ignorance and the ability to lead, it is plain to see that both sides are engaged in a debate that remains at the level of doctrinal accusation. Each side is serving a preconceived notion of what Islam is or is not. The hijacked-Islam thesis is no less dogmatic than the one it purports to reject. Each side is presenting a doctrine – in both its positive and negative form: one says there is death penalty in Islam the other says there is no death penalty in Islam. Which side has got it right is irrelevant. They both present “arguments” to support their claims. When both sides are equally convinced of the force of their arguments, one must be prepared to take a step further and question the arguments themselves.
What we should question is the premises and the cogency of the presented arguments. One must grant to Qureshi that there are plenty of verses, prophetic sayings, scholarly opinions and historical precedents that are interpreted in such a way as to unequivocally support death penalty. But we must also grant that there are counter-traditions and counter-opinions. Which tradition one choses as authoritative is not only a matter of logical argument: it is a matter of conviction and interpretation, education and aesthetic or political preferences. The near total hegemony of the Sunni schools in Islam was not won by arguments alone. The rationalist school in Islam known as Mu’tazila did not die out because of its inability to provide convincing arguments to its opponents. Looking at it retrospectively, the rationalists of Islam provided far more cogent and coherent set of arguments than the Sunni schools have ever done. Yet they were driven to extinction. To present the issue as purely a matter of argument and knowledge vs. rhetoric and ignorance is convincing only to those who already are convinced of their unshakable points of view.
Both parties are engaged in reductive forms of argumentation: Qureshi reduces the complex human relations to formal logical or legal principles, and then these principles themselves are reduced to a literalist understanding of the arguments and the texts which the arguments are supposed to defend. In magnifying beyond any reasonable proportion the importance of his arguments, Qureshi appears as a narrow-minded fanatic who cannot see any value in pluralism or tolerate views which refuse to be caught in the web of his arguments. His opponents, however, provide no arguments at all to disapprove his claims. They are enraged! How dare Qureshi question their faith? Emotional outbursts and moral outrage is not an inappropriate response but it has little intellectual value. After all, the easy dismissal of Qureshi is a sign of a malady, of an inability to come to terms with what he represents. He is drawing on a longstanding tradition and that tradition is still powerful in most parts of Muslim countries. I am sympathetic to the reaction that his utterances have caused. But cheap scoring of points is not what we should be after. We should be after displacing his tradition, and in order to achieve such a feat one has to engage with it on a more profound level than what is the case in this debate.
To lay bare the arguments of both sides amounts to this: Qureshi and his group use rhetorical tropes as arguments: “whose knowledge is better: yours or God’s?” Presented in such terms, a believer will choose God. The role of human agency in understanding the text is rendered inexistent. Implicitly, however, he associates himself with God. His opponents provide arguments of the kind: I am a Muslim and I am principally against death penalty. But this does not tell us anything about Islam. It tells us about the person who holds that belief. The belief in itself may or may not be compatible with the presumed teachings of Islam.
In this way, the problem only gets displaced and no convincing argument is provided to those who think otherwise. At this level we remain completely unmoved by the claims that both sides make.
To move the debate to higher and more productive level one has, first and foremost, to refuse the doctrinal blackmail. By doctrinal blackmail I mean accusatory claims which are thrown at the opponents face with the sole purpose of intimidation. The recourse to blackmails immediately exhaust all other options which in any proper debate must remain open. One can sincerely be mistaken about ones beliefs. The belief that one may be mistaken rests on the sound argument of the fallibility of human reason. Humans are not gods who presumably are infallible. This is of critical importance for an open and democratic society. The fact that even after repeated examination of a certain topic, the possibility of mistake is ever present shows that there are no final thoughts that cannot be challenged, even if these thoughts have been canonized into laws and dogmas.
Early Islamic history is a testimony to this. No opinion was ever final: only God’s word was final, but then as the fourth Muslim caliph, Ali, said, the word of God does not speak by itself. It is people who speak it. And people who speak it bring with themselves a repertoire of historical concepts and prejudices, which determine the interpretation that the word of God is bound to get. These conceptions do not exist in historical and social vacuum. They reflect the historical conditions which have brought them about. Because they are historically determined, and because they reflect a limited understanding of a society of itself at a given historical period they cannot be universalized without violence. The violence in question does not have to be physical for it to be effective.
The universalization of a norm of a historically bygone period violates the self-understanding of the contemporary period. This should not be understood that one should not draw insights from history in order to correct the shortcomings of the modern period. The past cannot be dissociated from the present. But the past cannot dictate and impose itself on the present. It cannot set the terms of the debate. In such circumstances we deny legitimacy without any profound reason to our own right to use our reason not only to understand the past but also to change our present. There is no good argument in support of our self-negation to a past which was highly assertive of its own historical demands. Early Muslims had understood that the Book of God does not speak for itself. They created a medium for its articulation. They created a science, usul al fiqh, which was thought to give voice to a silent book. Impressive as this science is, its shortcomings have become obvious. Its rules are out of sync with the time in which we live. But most importantly, Qureshi is oblivious to the fact that those rules are a product of interpretation of a certain historical period of Islam. So when they read the Book of God in the way they did, they were also responding to and were in dialogue with the forces which were shaping their historical present, neither of which is present today.
I will not say that Qureshi has misunderstood Islam. He is right mainly for the wrong reasons. He has understood one interpretation of Islam which has had the fortune to become dominant for many centuries of stagnation and has mistaken this dominance or orthodoxy for the only way for Islam to be. What Qureshi misunderstands is the dynamics of his own time. The arguments that Islam demands total submission to God, which is one of the meanings of the word Islam, are neither realistic nor plausible on the terms that he proposes. Even the submission to God has to be articulated in some form of interpretation. The very submission to God has to be submitted to the demands of the historical exigencies of meaning and interpretation. And the meaning and interpretation of submission have to be meaningful to the demands and the requirements of its own time. What Qureshi is demanding is that Muslims submit to God through the paradigms that were meaningful to previous generations but which no longer are so. The very vocabulary and the method of his argumentation are suggestive here: the total lack of comprehension of the sort of demands that contemporary Muslims are faced with. So when Qureshi and his associates speak of Islam what they really speak about is a repetition of the interpretations of certain past Muslims generations. If we accept them as interpretations there remains no good reason why we should accept them uncritically. The claim that Muslims have formed a consensus about a certain issue is another way of reinstating the same basic premise, of forcing upon contemporary Muslims a theology, an interpretation of Islam which is not and cannot be equal to Islam’s power of regenerating itself in tune with the demands of time.
The question is will Qureshi accept that his Islam is merely an interpretation, sound as it may be, submitted to a certain paradigm and politics of reading or will he continue to maintain that he has read the mind of God and thus has become absolute? If he accepts that his Islam is one out-dated interpretation, will he find in himself the intellectual courage to accept that as an interpretation it cannot stand for Islam itself? Will he be willing to maintain the gap open, however minimally, between Islam and an interpretation of Islam?