Scientific way of looking at Islam and the Muslims Part II

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014


IN MY previous article last week, I discussed the need to study Islam in a more comprehensive manner using scientific methodologies. I made mentioned of the different paradigms that Muslims all over the world tend to view and interpret Islam.

Based on studies by Tariq Ramadan, there are six major tendencies for whom Islam is the reference point for their thinking, their discourse, and their engagement. These are as follows: Scholastic Traditionalism; Salafi Literalism; Salafi Reformism; Political Literalist Salafism; "Liberal" or "Rationalist" Reformism; and, the Sufism. For proper discussion, let us define them one by one:

Scholastic traditionalism as defined by Tariq Ramadan, refers to a tendency that has attracted followers mostly in the West (US and Europe) and is found in various regions of the Muslim world. Adherents of this line of thought have a distinctive way of referring to scriptural Texts, the Qur'an and the Sunna, characterized by a strict and sometimes even exclusive reference to one or other of the Schools of jurisprudence (the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, Hanbali, Zaydi, Jafari, among others), thus allowing no criticism of the legal opinions established in the School in question.

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Salafi literalism is often confused with the traditional one just described, although their differences are significant. In contrast with the scholastic traditionalists, the salafi literalists reject the mediation of the juridical Schools and their scholars when it comes to approaching and reading the Texts. They call themselves salafis because they are concerned to follow the salaf, which is the title given to the Companions of the Prophet and pious Muslims of the first three generations of Islam.

Salafi reformists share with salafi literalists a concern to bypass the boundaries marked out by the juridical Schools in order to rediscover the pristine energy of an unmediated reading of the Qur'an and the Sunna. They too, therefore, refer back to the salafs, the Muslims of the first generations, with the aim of avoiding the commentaries of the eighth-, ninth-, or tenth-century scholars who have been accorded sole authority to interpret the Texts. However, in contrast with the literalists, although the Texts remain for them unavoidable, their approach is to adopt a reading based on the purposes and intentions of the law and jurisprudence (fiqh).

Political Literalist Salafism. This is the second trend referred to earlier, and it was essentially born of the repression that has ravaged the Muslim world. Scholars and intellectuals originally attached to the legalist reformist school went over to strictly political activism (while they were still based in the Muslim world). All they retained of reformism was the idea of social and political action, which they wedded to a literalist reading of Texts with a political connotation concerning the management of power, the caliphate, authority, law, and so on. The whole constitutes a complex blend that tends toward radical revolutionary action: it is about opposing the ruling powers, even in the West, and struggling for the institution of the "Islamic state" in the form of the caliphate.

"Liberal" or "Rationalist" Reformism. Essentially born out of the influence of Western thought during the colonial period, the reformist school, presenting itself as liberal or rationalist, has supported the application in the Muslim world of the social and political system that resulted from the process of secularization in Europe.

In Turkey, the liberals were the defenders of President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secularization project within their government, for example, and of the complete separation of the religious arena from the ordering of public and political life. In the West, supporters of liberal reformism preach the integration/assimilation of Muslims, from whom they expect a complete adaptation to the Western way of life. They do not insist on the daily practice of religion and hold essentially only to its spiritual dimension, lived on an individual and private basis, or else the maintenance of an attachment to the culture of origin.

Sufism. Sufis are in fact numerous and very diversified. Whether Naqshbandis, Qadiris, Shadhilis, or any of the many other turuq (plural of tariqa), Sufi circles are essentially oriented toward the spiritual life and mystical experience. This is not to say that Sufi disciples (murids) have no community or social involvement; the contrary is often the case. In the end, it is first and foremost a matter of priorities, which are determined differently: the scriptural Texts have a deep meaning that, according to Sufi teachings, requires time for meditation and understanding. This is a call to the inner life, away from disturbance and disharmony. Here the Text is the ultimate point of reference, because it is the way to remembrance (dhikr) and nearness (taqarub): it is the only path to the experience of closeness to God.

By looking at these approaches, it gives us a clearer view "because it investigates the attitudes that lie behind religious, social, and political expressions and actions. However, it does not cast doubt upon the fundamental adherence of one group or another to Islam but seeks to uncover their respective approaches to reading the sources: the status of the Text, the scope allowed for interpretation, the admissibility of a contextualized reading, the role of reason, and the strength of the literalist position are some of the factors that explain the various and differentiated approaches" (Ramadan: Oxford University, 2004).

In a meeting last week, a colleague asked me "what is the dominant Islamic school of thought do we have in the Philippines?" I told him, it is still Sunni Islam. The typology we discussed here mainly take reference point for Muslims' way of thinking and their discourse. Thus, being a Sunni, Wahabi, or Shii Muslims, even if we legitimately consider them Muslims, do not enter into this typology, for their reference to Islam, by their own reckoning, does not play a particular role in their reflections and actions. How they apply their interpretations, being traditionalists, literalists, or reformists makes a lot of differences.

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on September 03, 2014.

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