Tuesday, July 11, 2017

what a liberal, reformist Muslim looks and sounds like

This is must-see viewing as far as I'm concerned: Roaming Millennial interviews Imam Tawhidi of Australia, a Muslim who strongly advocates radical reform of Islam from within:

Of particular note to me is this moment in the interview (starting at approx. 26:08):

ROAMING MILLENNIAL: ...and I think the issue of who has the most legitimate form of Islam is one that is particularly contentious within the Muslim community. You mentioned earlier "my form of Islam," or, you know, "my type—my type of interpretation of Islam." In your opinion, do you think that, when you look at what the Koran actually preaches, do you think that these fundamentalists in some ways have a more true-to-form version of Islam?

IMAM TAWHIDI: When I say "my version of Islam," we need to understand that Islam is not one big school of thought. It's a combination of seventy-three schools of thought. And my school of thought is a minority—a very—probably the smallest school of thought out there. And most of our scholars are being imprisoned and butchered and killed and poisoned and so on by the Iranian regime.

With regards to the Holy Koran, we need to make sure that we treat it as a book. Let's not give it more of time [sic] than it actually deserves. Maybe people want to deal with ISIS, but they point back at the Holy Koran. The Koran is a book. We need to treat it as a book. The human is a human being with a brain. When the human being reads a book and then turns around and kills people, then clearly the problem is with the human being! I mean, I could give you the First Testament.* If you're gonna read that book, and you're gonna go out killing people because of Matthew 10, verse 34, that says that Jesus came with a sword,** and someone's gonna go out there and start killing people! Or if I gave them the Torah, or gave them the Sohof of Abraham and said, "Come"—every book is gonna have verses of defense!

Every book is gonna have something we don't like in it, something we don't see [as] compatible because, obviously, they're over a thousand years old—two thousand, three thousand, four thousand! If we're gonna limit the discussion to a book, then we're not actually gonna go anywhere with reforming Islam.

There's more to Islam and terrorism than just a book because if you say to me, "Imam, what's the main book for your denomination?" I'll say, "The Koran!" You get ISIS, and you say, "What's the main book for your denomination?" They'll say, "The Koran!" So all of these groups, they all read the Koran.

The problem is, we believe that the majority of these statements are actually metaphoric, or symbolic. Other versions of Islam take them to [be] the literal words, literal meaning. So for us, we're very flexible. We're very flexible when viewing the Koran. Because it's a book! It is a book! That's it! It's not like God came down in a form, and we're rejecting God as a being, you know. We're just dealing with the Koran, and we're rejecting all of the Wahabi, Salafi, terrorist, interpretation [sic] of these verses.

I might be in the middle of the road politically—leaning left on some issues and right on others—but when it comes to religion, I'm a flaming religious liberal. This imam is speaking my language, and I think this is the first time I've ever actually heard a liberal Muslim—liberal in the Western sense—speak his mind. As the imam himself notes, his point of view represents a vanishingly small minority in Islam, but he wants to fight to make his perspective more prevalent. A more secular, reformed, Westernized Islam is certainly conceivable, and if it's conceivable, then sociologically speaking, it's a vision that's possible to realize.

That said, the task of cultivating such a version of Islam in today's world is about as herculean as it gets. Part of the problem is that the imam is asking most Muslims to accept heresy. When the imam insists, for example, that the Koran "is a book," he's implying that the Koran is merely a book, i.e., a piece of literature like other pieces of literature. (This is reinforced when, later on, he talks about understanding scripture as having symbolic or metaphorical meaning—something that most practicing Muslims could never countenance.)

As I learned in my own religious-studies courses, the analogue of Jesus the Christ in Islam is not Muhammad—it's the Koran itself. The Koran is understood by Muslims to be the Word of God incarnate in the same way that Christians understand the Christ to be the incarnated Word. Some theologians even coined the Latin term inlibritio (the in-book-ing) as a rough analogue to the Christian incarnatio (the en-flesh-ing). This is why the physical Koran must be treated by Muslims with utmost respect, reverence, and adoration. Proclaiming the Holy Koran to be "[just] a book" isn't merely rude: it's sacrilegious. And with the Koran thus shielded by this strong sense of taboo, how on Earth is this imam ever going to cultivate a less literalist understanding of the holy word?***

There are huge problems for any Muslim liberal who is serious about liberalizing Islam. But what excited me most about this man's discourse was his affirmation of my mantra: religions are as they are practiced. His point about how different types of Muslims all cleave to the same scripture is a beautiful illustration of the point I've been trying over and over to make on this blog (at least back when I used to write more about religious topics): the same scripture can lead to different thoughts and behaviors depending on the approaches taken by the people reading it. It's a matter of perspective and temperament, for you see: it's the people, NOT the doctrines, who make the religion. There is nothing inherent in the scriptures that dooms Islam to manifest in only one way. Islam—or so a Buddhist would say—has no essence. It merely is what it is right now, and there's no cosmically necessary reason for it to remain this way. In fact, if the world teaches anything, it's that everything changes, so Islam will change, too. Because that's the nature of existence. Globally peaceful Islam will only emerge when its practitioners are globally peaceful: that's the long and the short of it. I completely disagree with the people (many of whom are on the right) who insist that Islam is somehow inherently or essentially violent. It isn't. It isn't because—again, as the Buddhists would say—nothing is inherently or essentially anything, for everything is intercausal.

We may not live to see the advent of a globally peaceful Islam that has evolved out of its current benighted state into something more enlightened and civilized. But I trust that the current state of affairs won't last forever: nothing lasts forever.

*The term "First Testament" is in fact used among biblical scholars who wish to avoid whatever supersessionist connotations there might be with the term "Old Testament." In this particular discussion, though, the imam actually intended to cite the Second (i.e., the New) Testament, as the scriptural example he gives refers to Jesus. See next footnote.

**Matthew 10:34: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Many modern liberal Christians are uncomfortable with this seemingly militant Jesus, but I think the larger point the imam is making is one that I've made repeatedly on this blog, to wit: it's possible to reinterpret even the most extreme verses of scripture in an irenic way. See the second footnote in this old entry to learn more about sword imagery in some religions.

***Note, too, that this is exactly the opposite of what Zen Buddhism teaches about its own scripture. While Seon scholar (and former Seon monk) Robert Buswell cautions Westerners about cavalierly labeling Zen as "anti-scriptural," as people with a superficial understanding of Zen are wont to do, it's nevertheless true that Zen itself is comfortable with the idea of using the holy scriptures as toilet paper if that's what upaya (i.e., skillful means) calls for in the present moment. Why? Because the Most Important Thing isn't somehow magically contained within the scriptures: the best the scriptures can do is point to that thing, i.e., to refer beyond themselves to something far greater and deeper, and yet—as both Zennists and Taoists would say—something radically ordinary.

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