August 17, 2008

Liberation, Theology, and the Abrahamic Religions

"We must go beyond giving a piece of bread to the little ones who knock on our doors...Saying 'yes' to them may make us feel good but does not solve the problem. one finds business people spending huge amounts on charity and it makes them feel very good. Nobody asks how come they have so much money...We must understand that if we choose solidarity with the poor that our option has a political character in so far as it means attacking structures and making decisions to take concrete actions to help specific classes."
quoted in Qu'ran, Liberation, and Pluralism

One thing I realized about myself during the course of reading Farid Esack's Qur'an, Liberation, and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression.: I cannot support any religion, no matter how orthodox, that does not have as its absolute center, support for the struggle of the poor and oppressed against their oppression. If that sounds like apostasy, then I think its an indication of how much theology these days, be it Islamic or Christian, is majoring in utter trivialities and consistently failing to address itself to the overarching needs of our world. It seems as if I am constantly reading or coming across apologetics which seek to 'prove' scientifically that the Qur'an is correct, or that Jesus was really the 'Son of God' or that modernity cannot explain the 'wonders' of creation. Which is all well and good up to a point. Yet I notice in this preoccupation a defensive position which religion has adopted against secularism and modernity and in consequence, ceded the great source of its prophetic power. Religion has the ability like no other instrument to mobilize the masses, yet the problem is that the conception of religion put forth is that of purely personal piety. I utterly reject this pie-in-the-sky approach. Its not that I don't believe in an afterlife or in the power of Allah. But I am just tired of seeing it used to justify words, actions, and policies that are directly opposed to the mandate of a JUST GOD!
Growing up as a Christian, and encountering liberation theology for the first time at the age of 21, I was deeply impressed but also deeply worried for the implication it held of relativism and undermining the authority of the Scripture. Since then, my perspective on this issue has changed radically, and I find myself drawn to its expression through the work of Farid Esack.
Esack has done for Islam what James Cone did for Christianity: give it a radical wake-up call and force it to confront the message of liberation inherent in the text of the Qur'an.
In studying the evolution of the Islamic community in the early days, one finds that the Prophet(SAW) was gathering followers from all walks of society and life and calling them to an order that transcended tribal, racial and previous religious classification. At its core, the message of Islam is no different than what Jesus came to do. Remember that Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, and that he preached from the Torah in order to call for the reform of the old order which was hierarchical and collaborationist, and had forgotten the basic 'spirit' of Judaism. Similarly in Eastern religion, the Buddha and other acknowledged spiritual masters often began their quest for truth not out of a desire to 'create' a new religion, but to reform the old one (often corrupt varieties of Hinduism). All this is not to say that Islam or Christianity are not legitimate religions in their own right. But it does go to illustrate how we generally think about religion: religion is something you 'have'. Thus, if I walk around Mombasa and go to pray in the masjid and someone asks my name, many people will not believe I am a Muslim because I have a 'Christian' name. Of course, when pushed they will admit that, "kwa hakika, dini ndani ya moyo yako." (In truth, religion is in your heart) It goes to show that religion functions dually: as a cultural marker in everyday usage, but also on a more philosophical level as a purification of the soul.Because true religion is a purification of the inner self, it follows that it will be reflected in how we live it.
This deeper reality is in line with how Jainism, one of the world's oldest religions, perceives religion, a reality also reflected in the Quran; knowledge of the truth has risen and fallen cyclically throughout history. Thus, with each new generation, new prophets have arisen in order to communicate this truth to the people, typically in the form of religion. And the Prophet (SAW), Jesus, Buddha, any great spiritual teacher would cry in disbelief and outrage if they saw the trivialities and worthless theological fiddling their followers engage in the name of 'religion'. Religion is not a immovable fortress to be guarded and hoarded. It is something so much more holy than can be expressed in words, something so much more radical than the status quo would like it to be, and something immeasurably powerful beyond imagination. I find its highest expression in the world today to be the struggle for justice, for how can we claim to 'submit to Allah', to 'be like Jesus', how can we claim a 'Christ-centered life' or to be following the way of the Prophet (Sunnah) if we are not living some kind of radical witness to the power and corruption of this world? And does not the power and corruption of this world find its most evil expression in the immoral pillage of Iraq by the US government, the tremendous and growing gap between rich and poor, the food policies of the the G8 (especially America) which have catastrophic effects on the ability of farmers worldwide to sell their produce at a fair price, the persecution and violence perpetrated outrageously against women worldwide by so-called 'Islamic' countries, and a host of other injustices, many of them far more local than what I have named.
I find myself so angry sometimes at the complacency in regards to this issue. And it leads me to define religion as this: 'an active response to the will of God with regard to justice and right conduct on every level of existence.' I acknowledge the relevance of religion as something you 'have' (i.e. culture, language, membership in a socio-ethnic group) but I prefer the first definition. What do you think? And remember, I am just an amateur scholar! I don't read Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, or any of the original languages of the books the religions I discussed find holy. But I contend that one doesn't have to in order to grasp the BASIC ESSENCE OF ALL RELIGION. RELIGION IS ONE. GOD IS ONE. Peace be upon those who follow right guidance. And God knows best.


Sammy August 22, 2008 at 12:44 PM  

You've been penning some interesting stuff while my laptop's been in the repair shop...

While early Islam was inclusive and community building, the Quran still has a lot of us vs. them. Namely believers vs. unbelievers.

If I asked you who is a prophet of your god and who is not, how would you answer? Is it limited to those few to whom your god chooses to 'speak?' Is it anyone who chooses to tap into your god's word and comes out with a revelation that you approve of? Could I be a prophet of your god? Could you?

زينب أبو المجد August 24, 2008 at 11:14 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous,  February 11, 2010 at 4:25 AM  

thanks so much for your kind comments

farid esack

Nathaniel Mathews February 15, 2010 at 4:23 PM  

thank you Dr. Esack, its truly an honor to have you visit the site. blessings....

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