October 30, 2011

In Defense of True Religion: A Response to "Universal Validity of All Religions"

A Response to “Universal validity of all religions”
by Nathaniel Mathews

This is meant to be a response to Shaykh Nuh Hah Mim Keller's “On the validity of all religions in the thought of ibn Al-'Arabi and Emir 'Abd al-Qadir: a letter to `Abd al-Matin”. It is not a point-by-point rebuttal, but a recasting of the debate itself. I decided to write such a response after reading and discussing with a number of Muslims about other spiritual paths to truth, and finding out that in many cases Muslims made ignorant claims about other religions without fully understanding them; this despite the fact that these same people would constantly bring attention to how Muslim thought and theology was distorted and misunderstood.

I also feel there has been a lot of abusive language, hostility and fitna directed towards those who claim to be “perennialists” within the Muslim tradition. Those who are inclined can easily find a lot of good web resources on perennialism. The basic belief of perennialists is that all religions have within them a path to the truth that is valid and acceptable. Notice that the perennialists do not believe that all roads lead to the truth. Muslim perennialists remain within the Islamic spiritual tradition and use its resources to work towards higher spiritual truths and common ground with other religions.

Let me begin by speaking of the respect I hold for the teaching of Shaykh Nuh. His commitment and dedication to the path of tasawwuf is evident, as is his erudition in the Islamic sciences. However, I believe that on the issue of the validity of other religions, his evidence is insufficient to support his conclusion. In what follows I will try to show how, using several different avenues of proof. I will be appealing to 1) Human intellect 2) Human humility—i.e. The limited knowledge we possess of the world and 3) The highest values in Islam itself.

Let us first examine what Shaykh Nuh's refutation of the universal validity of other religions rests on. Shaykh Nuh writes, “As for the abrogation of all religions by Islam, many of us know Muslims who believe the opposite of orthodox Islam, perhaps due to a literary and intellectual environment in which any and every notion about this world and the next can be expressed, in which novelty is highly valued, and in which tradition has little authority.” This is essentially an argument from tradition; Shaykh Nuh claims that many of todays Muslims are unfit to judge this issue because they have been too corrupted by an 'anything goes' argument in the West. It is important to note that this is not an argument at all, but a subtle suggestion that those Muslims who hold this belief (perennialism) are really not Muslims at all, or somehow weak in their faith. It is important to note this because the article is filled with such reliance on the unreliability of personal experience.

The arguments of Shaykh Nuh essentially rest on the supposed inability of the average person to question the tradition which was constructed by learned scholars. Again this is a rhetorical strategy designed to weaken the confidence of those who argue by placing them implicitly outside the fold of the learned. Shaykh Nuh writes, “Orthodoxy exists, it is unanimously agreed upon by the scholars of Muslims, and we have conveyed in Nawawi's words above that to believe anything else is unbelief. .. Who else said it before? And if no one did, and everyone else considers it kufr, on what basis should it be accepted?”

Notwithstanding Shaykh Nuh's dismissal, the perennialists understanding of Islam and other religions is quite sophisticated—recognizing that in order obtain the truths of a particular religious path, one had to follow the dicates of its religious law. Their view is hardly anti-orthodox! Yet Shaykh Nuh, arguing from tradition, claims that perennialists are not advancing insights into Islamic spirituality based on spiritual realization, but rather using their personal ideas of Islam as an element to fit into their own private worldview. This argument like the others in the essay, rests on tradition. It asks: “who are these guys to question centuries of scholarship?” Shaykh Nuh, without analyzing their ideas at all, or bothering to quote from them, dismisses them as self-indulgent crackpots. This is hardly a compelling rebuttal! Shaykh Nuh's burning question—who are you to question tradition?—can and should be vigorously answered: “They, like me, were residents of their contemporary reality, with an unprecedented access to knowledge of other religions and the freedom to search and ask questions that was denied to many previous generations. They like me, and like the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) valued spiritual searching free from persecution, exile, imprisonment or execution or dogmatic statements of spiritual reality.

There can be no doubt that orthodoxy exists, and that there is good reason to pay attention to it and to engage with its arguments. But orthodoxy is not the same as Islam, and the guardians of orthodoxy are not necessarily the guardians of Islam. To Shaykh Nuh's question of “why should the universal validity of religions be accepted?” I would argue that in addition to being the most epistemologically compelling position for rational thinkers, it is urgently needed to prevent 1) inflated self conceptions of nationalistic righteousness and 2) The persecution and abuse of minority religious communities in contemporary Muslim countries (Bahai in Pakistan, Shia in Saudia Arabia, Christians in Egypt). In what follows I assume a compelling link between acceptance of different beliefs within a tradition and accepting the validity of other religions. I also assume that tolerance is an inadequate social value for intellectual engagement with the other. By acceptance I mean a basic validation that other religions are the embodied historical practices of other human beings with their own 'truths', and that believers from those religions deserve our respect, love and attention to as great a degree as we would show to a Muslim brother or sister.

The first point needs little introduction. One need only witness the acrimonious infighting of the Companions in the hundred years after the Prophet's death to understand the danger of refusing to coexist in the presence of massive doctrinal disagreements. The second point has also been well-documented, though it is typically either morally dodged as having “nothing to do with Islam” (it has everything to do with a nationalistic view of Islam) or justified because these communities are unbelievers, disloyal or subversive. (the role of modern Western nationalism in contributing to these ideas cannot be underestimated either, a point missed by many "capture the state for Islam" arguments).

Finally, in what follows I want to argue against the idea, perpetuated by Shaykh Nuh, that religions can be divided into hermetically sealed units whereby Islam and Muslims can be easily identitied by correct belief or a laundry list of traits. I want to argue against a prevailing form of religious nationalism all too prevalent in contemporary Islamic discourse. Such nationalism is ultimately self defeating in the struggle for truth and justice. Islam is not a nation oversweeping the globe, but a series of embodied interpretations of the legacy of a prophetic reformer, who saw himself as bringing the monotheistic message to a community previously deprived of revelation.

Islam, if it is truly a universal religion (and not merely some kind of glorified nationalism), cannot elevate to universality every value from its tribal origins (the cultural context which the law and rulings of Prophet Muhammad were largely rooted in). Islam, if it is to be universal, cannot be a tribe or nation. Yet far too many Muslims treat Islam as some form of nationalism. Examples of this are too numerous to cite here, and need not concern us. I am concerned that if the ultimate intention of the Prophet's message was to transcend the religious nationalism of the Christians and Jews, then the solution for our contemporary times cannot be for Muslims to reproduce their rank nationalistic pseudo-religious exclusivity. Those who are familiar enough with the doctrinal disputes and logic whereby the exclusivity of Christianity is constructed will recognize the Muslim version.

Shaykh Nuh brings forth evidence from Quran that every community had a messenger sent to them, and that one should not differentiate between those messengers because they all brought the same message. He writes, “Though the Sacred Law of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) superseded all previously valid religious laws, it was identical with them in beliefs, such as tawhid or "oneness of God.” Such a belief can only be true ( the Prophet confirming all previous messages) if two other conditions are met: 1) We restrict our study of religion to the Abrahamic tradition and 2) The sacred law Shaykh Nuh is referring to as identical to previous revelation is restricted to an overall ethical impulse, rather than any outward manifestation.
What are the consequences of these two conditions? One, if Shaykh Nuh restricts the scope of religion to the Abrahamic tradition (as do the majority of Muslim scholars), then what he is arguing is that God sent messengers to only a tiny section of humanity, in a tiny geographical area of the world, in just two or three languages, quite late in its history! But this makes a mockery of God's omnipotence, mercy and justice! Furthermore, history itself, properly understood, contradicts the assertion that God will punish any people who are not “Muslims”. If, as the Quran repeatedly says, God will punish those people who don't believe in him by destroying them, then what do we say of some of the most successful civilizations to have ever existed? After all, the Egyptian and Chinese civilizations seem to have prospered for thousands of years longer than any Jewish, Muslim or Christian government or empire without an exclusive concept of ONE GOD (although they did have some concept of an Organic Oneness or Unity similar to the Islamic concept of La Ilaha Illa Allah).

We must also ask ourselves: what is meant by “Islam” in each of the passages Shaykh Nuh quotes? If by Islam all these passages mean a unified ideology, complete with a developed law code, theology, and 5 pillars, then our position is certainly weaker. But if by Islam, at least some of these passages mean a deeper spiritual impulse that motivated all the prophets (and not the formalized religion as we have come to know it) then such a statement cannot be used to refute other religious paths, since according to this vision of Islam, many people may actually be Muslims according to a very broad understanding of what that means. For more on this idea, one should consult Farid Esack's work in Quran, Liberation and Pluralism. Too often Muslims assume that when we speak of Islam we are speaking of one unitary idea stretching back through eons. Other times we assume it is something that the Prophet Muhammad brought to his community. In apologetics and theology, Muslims “switch” between these two different, both orthodox conceptions, often without realizing the important differences between the two ideas. It is the difference between the two ideas that contains the key to a radical reappraisal of tradition that is absolutely necessary to avoid the kind of nationalistic hubris I am writing against.
The consequences of conflating the two ideas are intellectual schizophrenia and a poverty of ideas. Muslims are largely failing to convince others why the sacred law of Islam is so important, largely because the view they have of this sacred law is so narrowly culturally defined by orthodox consensus. When intelligent people ask why, for example, a sharia compliant inheritance or women wearing jilbab or hijab is so necessary to human progress, moral sanity and a just society, they are unable to give a compelling rational answer beyond, “Allah says so in the Quran.”

This is a circular argument, not to mention an anti-intellectual one that echoes a similar conundrum in Christianity. It makes the authority of the revelation do too much work, as if because you accept the Quran to be a miracle you must accept the whole package of orthodoxy. This is not merely a fiqh question (reinterpreting the law), as those defenders of traditional Islam argue, but a question of false equivalency that leads to outmoded nationalistic thinking. The sharia is no longer (if it ever was) equivalent to the practices of the early Muslim community under the Prophet Muhammad's leadership. In constantly emphasizing that it should be, Muslims have to “fit” it, often awkwardly into a worldview largely defined by Western style modernity. They are thus faced with a series of logical and moral absurdities, which they largely navigate through “double-think”. This double think can easily be seen in the realm of contemporary Muslim theological apologetics. It is also observable in the zealotry of new converts who become highly self-righteous, the nitpicking over details (i.e. wearing a beard) or the debates over the lawfulness of slavery (witness what just occurred in Mauritania). All these things are consequences of this false equivalency, of equating a finite historical community with God's infinite favor.

I believe a critical stance towards orthodoxy is much more compelling intellectual position to be in—and perennialism provides a way to meet the new knowledge we have about other religions without sacrificing too much of the essentials of the Islamic tradition. To give an example, we might refer to Quranic ayats about the Jews and Christians, not to mention other religious people, attaining salvation. We would present heaven and hell in Islam as important ideas in creating ethical orientation in the believer—similar to the Buddhist metaphor of the Burning House. In fact, the very idea of a heaven and a hell ought to be understood by the spiritually mature as metaphors designed to point humans in the right direction, not spatially bounded places where we condemn those incovenient to our 'truth'.

For anyone in these times to speak as if ONLY "orthodox" Islamic belief points the way to paradise is a dangerously hubristic viewpoint, as it implicity invalidates the spiritual attainments of hundreds of thousands of contemporary seekers of all stripes: Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, and Jews, not to mention other Muslims (even to the extent of forcing some to twist history to somehow paint successful ancient civilizations as having been “Muslim”, which merely perpetuates a hubristic fantasy of manifest destiny). It short-circuits the intellectual possibilities of inter-religious dialogue and the expansion of our knowledge of the world. Finally, there is not enough experiental evidence to boldly make such a claim. Better to say, like in many matters of so-called orthodoxy in modern times, “Allah 3lim”--God knows—and try to live the best we can according to our chosen path.


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