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CONTEMPORARY TOPICS

THE IMPACT OF CATEGORY MISTAKES

There are, for Sardar, three category mistakes. Most Muslims, firstly, think that the only valid interpretation of the Qur'an is the one made in history, particularly by the first generation of Muslims. This firstly, for Sardar, is a theory of decline: no progress is possible if all progress has already been made in history, over 1,400 years ago. Secondly, moral evolution comes to a grinding halt if we think that all morality ends with the Qur'an. Finally, your fate is really sealed if you believe that the Qur'an is the repository of all knowledge and there is nothing for you to discover. These three category mistakes undermine the ethos of the Qur'an and are the main sources of the degeneration, discord and current impasse in Muslim societies. The discrepancy between theory and practice, Sardar fears, becomes even more evident when we look at some of the burning issues of our time, starting with the rule of law, and pursuit of social and economic justice.

THE SHARI'A: REPRODUCES THE CONDITIONS OF MEDIEVAL TIMES

Literally, the word Shari'a means "the way to a watering hole", a place where one can drink and refresh oneself. Today when people look to "Shari'a law" for guidance, they are actually looking at fiqh, the rulings of medieval jurists, rather than looking directly at how the Qur'an treats the issue. So the legal injunctions developed to solve the problems of a bygone era based on the social and cultural circumstances and understanding of a medieval society have come to be seen as the law and morality of Muslim societies for all times! And it bears little resemblance to what the Qur'an actually says. That is why wherever the Shari'a is imposed (and it is always imposed), as for example in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban, it reproduces the conditions of medieval times, totally disconnected from our own.

Yet the Shari'a, as a way to a watering hole, should be the source from which the believers quench their thirst for knowledge of contemporary relevance. It should be a problem-solving methodology that requires Muslims to exert themselves and constantly reinterpret the Qur'an. Just as the Qur'an has to be reinterpreted form epoch to epoch, so the Shari'a has to be reformulated to accommodate and make sense of changing contexts. What is needed, on the one hand, is a robust study of the history of ideas to unravel the immovable object the Shari'a has become; and, on the other hand, there is a desperate need for robust reasoning about how to recover the means of making laws consonant with the Qur'anic principles and values that operate its moral and ethical framework to serve the actual needs of a particular society today. The Shari'a, for Sardar, has to become a vigorous, dynamic work of human reason, and, by way of conclusion – for us here, in terms of our centred, integral polity – participatory democracy.

POWER AND POLITICS: MEDINA'S PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY

INDIVIDUAL AND COMMUNITY

The Qur'an, as a whole, describes itself as a "guidance" manual outlining how to live a good life. It deals, as such, with governance of the self as well as society. The consistent emphasis is that becoming a good person is impossible without accepting responsibility for the advancement of a good society. The responsibility for undertaking transformative action is placed on the individual working within him- or herself and within the community as a whole. The Qur'an does not present a prescriptive view of a specific kind of political system or system of governance, but fulfilling its objectives demands a style of engaging with society that could be termed, according to Sardar, participatory democracy.

The results of abuses of power are illustrated in the Qur'an in a number of narratives of historical people. The import of these verses is clear: God hates tyrants. Power has to be exercised on the basis of mercy and compassion and be used to uphold justice and equality in all its manifestations. Apart from prophet-kings, moreover, who are a special case, the Qur'an does not look with favour on monarchs. Instead, it suggests that power should be acquired through a social process. It should be generated, organized and distributed as a collective endeavour, involving everyone. The function of a political leader, as such, is to do justice, uphold the law and work to fulfil the needs and requirements of the community. This is clear from God's advice to King David:

Judge fairly between people. Do not follow your desires, lest they divert you from God's path (38:26).

If the leaders do not fulfil their obligation to promote justice, in social, economic and political terms, and uphold the law, the people are duty-bound not to obey them. The believers are told explicitly: do not obey those who are given to excess and who spread corruption in the land rather than doing what is right (26:150-52).

The Prophet, then, did not declare that the Qur'an was his constitution, but framed the constitution of Medina through a process of consultation, involving negotiations, contested argument and the inclusion of both Muslims and non-Muslims. Laws are dynamic, they change according to context, circumstances and changing societies; and since they regulate society, society itself has the right to participate, for Sardar, and have its say in framing laws. The city state of Medina recognized no superiority based on heredity, class, social status, political position or rank, or indeed any distinction between master and slave: it was a democracy beyond that envisaged in ancient Athens.

Science and Technology: An Hour's Study of Nature is Better than a Year's prayer

The Qur'an does not simply suggest science is important. It points toward methods for doing science. First, it urges readers to appreciate the importance of observation: "let man observe out of what has been created" (86:5). Second, it emphasizes the significance of measurement and calculation: "everything we have created in due measure and proportion" (15:21). Third, after observations, measurements and calculations have been made, we are asked to draw inferences: "there are messages for those who use their reason" (2:164). Finally, we are asked to proceed on the basis of evidence: "God himself proffers evidence" (3:18).

Experimental science, as we know it today, began for Sardar with Muslim civilization. "Scientific method" evolved out of the work of such scientists as Jabir ibn Hayan (who was a Christian), who laid the foundations for chemistry in the late 8th century, and ibn Al-Haythem, who established optics as an experimental science in the 19th century. From astronomy to zoology, there was hardly a field of study that Muslim scientists did not pursue vigorously, or to which they did not make an original contribution. The nature and extent of this scientific enterprise can be illustrated by four institutions considered typical of the "Golden Age of Islam": scientific libraries, universities, hospitals and instruments for scientific observation.

Muslims, consciously and deliberately, abandoned scientific inquiry in favour of religious obscurantism and blind imitation. The idea of knowledge, which included scientific and technical knowledge, was reduced, over centuries according to Sardar, to mean only religious knowledge. A major driving force behind the scientific spirit of Muslim civilization, in its Golden Age, was the notion of ijtihad or systematic original thinking, based on the Qur'anic injunction to think and reason, "to use their minds" (2:164), which became fundamental to the classical view of Islam.

However, the religious scholars, a dominant class in Muslim society, feared, in Sardar's view, the continuous and perpetual ijtihad which would undermine their power. So they banded together, over a number of centuries, and managed to close the gates of ijtihad: the way forward, they suggested, was taqlid, or imitation of the thought and work of earlier generations of scholars. Ostensibly this was a religious move, but given the fact that the Qur'an propagates a highly integrated view of the world and emphasizes that everything is connected to everything else, the reduction had a devastating effect on all forms of inquiry. The “minds" were closed not only on religious but on all forms of scientific and technological inquiry.

Moreover, the pursuit of science must be a socially responsible activity; it needs a reasoned moral and ethical framework for its means and ends, as well as in setting its priorities for research and development, to make its fullest contribution to the advancement of society and knowledge. To be true to their beliefs, for Sardar, Muslim societies need to put as much effort into science as they do on prayer, and place science where it belongs: at the very centre of Islamic culture.

ART AND IMAGINATION: EXPANDING HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS

The purpose of religion, culturally as well as socially for Sardar, ultimately, is to expand human consciousness, to be fully and continually aware of what is beyond the limitations of our created nature. The existence of God is the imperative to stretch our imagination and understanding of the Infinite. Therefore Islamic art tends to be abstract and aims to create the impression of infinity and transcendence.

So in a variety of plastic arts we see the play of geometric outlines: lines transformed into patterns, patterns combined into modules, modules combined to produce larger motifs, and repeated endlessly to produce movement. Combination and repetition – central to the structure of the Qur'an itself – go on ad infinitum to generate an intuition of infinity, that which is beyond space and time. Such aesthetic impressions can be seen in arabesques, witnessed on carpets, walls and furniture, and are the inspiration for design elements of architecture from the conception of buildings to the decorative detail of the interior.

A logical consequence of the importance of the words of the Qur'an is the development of calligraphy: representations of words as an art form. Primarily calligraphy uses the verses of the Qur'an itself to communicate the feeling of reverence and awe through line, shape, colour and movement – and transforms word into art. Music too, for Sardar, has played its distinctive role: Muslims constantly hear the Qur'an, whose aesthetic dimension is expressed through sound – by recitation. Poetry, moreover, was the traditional art form of the Arabs, and the Qur'an notes that Mohammed was seen by many people as a mad poet, rather than a messenger of God. Indeed, poetry has been a key instrument for releasing the religious imagination, surrounded by sounds and imagery, going beyond reason in unveiling the truth and discovering what it is to be human. It remains a vibrant art form across the Muslim world.

CONCLUSION

A DYNAMIC, INTERCONNECTED TEXT RELATED TO TIME AND PLACE

The Qur'an then, in conclusion for Sardar, is a dynamic, interconnected text. It does not present a static view of society; but actively encourages change, evolution, progress, and asks us constantly to change. Its meaning evolves, develops and changes the more connections we make, and the more we see the Qur'an as an interconnected text.

Context, firstly then, is everything in the Qur'an. It is an eternal text; but it is also a text revealed in history, over 1,400 years ago, to a prophet who lived in the Arabian society of the 7th century, albeit that it addresses and seeks to change the moral, social and cultural conditions of that period. Learning as much as possible about the language, customs, personalities and circumstances of that time in history has enabled Sardar to determine what is specific and what is universal.

Moreover it is doubt and open-mindedness that keeps the text alive and capable of revealing its relevance through different situations and circumstances.

Sardar's second observation is related to the first. A great deal of what is justified nowadays on the basis of the Qur'an – from autocracy to theocracy, suppression of freedom of expression, obscene accumulation of wealth to gross inequity, oppression of the rights of women to the denial of rights to minorities, exclusive ownership of truth to suicide bombing – has no relationship to the sacred text whatsoever. The more people, he believes, that use the Qur'an to justify their age-old customs and traditions, obnoxious behaviour and violent actions, the further they are from the spirit of the sacred text. Muslim attitudes to women, apostasy, other religions, freedom of expression, democracy, morality and ethics, the delusion that the Shari'a is divine, are all firmly anchored in dim and distant history where great jurists supposedly gave inalterable opinions and interpretations. However relevant they may have been historically, they have no relevance, for Sardar, today.

THE QUR'AN INVITES US NOT TO LOOK BACKWARDS BUT TO SEE AHEAD

The Qur'an finally invites us not to look backwards but to see ahead. Sardar, as such, draws three vital future lessons. First, in interpreting the Qur'an, we must distinguish between legal requirements and moral injunctions. Laws need to be just, ethical and equitable. To produce genuine insight, secondly, when reading the Qur'an, we need a higher order of questions: not just what the Qur'an says about individual behaviour, but what we can learn about combining individual fulfilment with individual acceptance of social responsibilities. Such complex questions would lead to a more holistic and deeper understanding of the sacred text. Thirdly and finally, in reading the Qur'an, Sardar has come to realize, it is not a one-dimensional, reductive act. Rather, it is a process, involving synthesis, looking for interconnections, discovering context, wrestling with contradictions. When, therefore, Muslims accept the Qur'an as nothing more than a given set of dos and don'ts we make their faith less and less relevant to the world in which we live.

We now turn from the grounding of Islam in the Middle East generally, to its context within Egypt specifically, as well as in the world at large. To help us along that harmonic way we draw, surprisingly perhaps, on British royalty.

 
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