Notes for a Talk Given to a Gathering of The Nahdatul Ulama in West Java, May 2017

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 ~ Kabir Helminski

The world is full of suffering and injustice. We are here to consider the possibility of how Muslims could bring peace to the world. Especially since 9/11 humanity has been saying to the Muslims, whether consciously or unconsciously, prove to me that we don’t need to fear you. I think we would all agree that Muslims in general have not been successful in demonstrating that Islam can bring peace and compassionate justice to the world.

We hear ourselves complaining about the state of Islam and the Muslims; we find fault with ourselves and with each other, but always there is an unspoken assumption that there is nothing wrong with Islam as it has been formulated.  Perhaps the great majority of Muslims do not quite know where to draw the line between divine revelation and human opinion. Most Muslims believe that Shariah was given by God, not formulated by human beings subject to their own limitations and conditioned by the level of cultural development of their own time and place.

Because religion is about the ultimate truths and values, and the moral choices on which the state of our soul and our eternal life depend, people are rightfully cautious, even fearful, about making the smallest mistake in matters of religion. We forget that the Quran offers a critique of the ways in which religion can degenerate, be degraded, and come to produce effects opposite to the original message of the religion.

The Quran reminds us that human beings have made things unlawful to themselves which Allah never intended and thus created unnecessary burdens and restrictions that do not serve any spiritual purpose.

Say: “Have you ever considered all the means of sustenance (rizq) which God has bestowed upon you from on high – and which you thereupon divide into ‘things forbidden’ (haram) and ‘things lawful’ (halal)?” Say: “Has God given you permission – or do you, perchance, attribute your own guesswork to God?” (60) But what will they think – they who attribute their own lying inventions to God –on the Day of Resurrection? Behold, God is indeed limitless in His bounty unto human beings – but most of them are ungrateful. (10:59)

We accept that the Qur’an offers truthful guidance from a beneficent Source. But how human beings interpret the Quran is not beyond criticism.

I would like to offer some metaphors that describe the situation of Islam in the world today:

  1. The body of the Ummah is suffering from the cancer of Islamist tyranny. Left unattended, the patient will become more and more incapacitated by the disease. We must activate the immune system of the Ummah which is Rahmah, expressed through compassionate justice and divine love.
  2. Institutional Islam is like a great estate in ruins, suffering from centuries of deferred maintenance. Its roof and walls are not sound; its plumbing is faulty and obsolete; it wiring is dangerously overloaded and prone to failure; ramshackle additions have been added that do not serve a coherent purpose. The people who enter it do so out of habit, guilt, or a sense of obligation. It has become an uncomfortable place. Some people simply walk away from it.
  3. Finally, the true, spiritual message of Islam is like a pot bound plant, it’s roots trying to break through the confinement of a pot it has outgrown. The plant is far from healthy, deprived of adequate nutrients and water, its leaves yellowing, some of its branches nearly lifeless. People are worshiping the pot and ignoring the plant.

Too many have missed the simple and universal message of the Quran as clearly expressed in Surah Bayyinah: 98(5) And all they were asked to do is worship God, sincere in their faith in Him alone, turning away from all that is false;[1] and that they should be constant in prayer; and that they should spend in charity: for this is a moral law endowed with ever-true soundness and clarity.

Islam arrived as a liberator of humanity, but as it mixed with political realities and human mediocrities, its original message was compromised, and in some cases betrayed. Within two or three centuries the original impulse of Islam, which brought both human solidarity and a radical interfaith movement, became a legalistic system that added rules and prescriptions not explicitly stated in the Quran, and in some cases contradicting the spirit of the Quran. A revelation that condemned coercion, became in some cases a coercive legalistic system of coercion. Once a power for emancipation, some people used it as a matrix of oppression.

Influenced by this legalistic and dogmatic mentality, many people have misinterpreted the Sunnah of the Prophet as a rigid, imitative concept of dress and behavior. They have believed that they must blindly imitate every behavior of the Prophet, sometimes referring to hadith of dubious origins. In doing so they have ignored the true Sunnah, which is the Prophet’s flexibility, mercy, and preference for essence and meaning over mere appearance and form. But Islam does not depend on the infallibility of every action of the Prophet, rather his example illustrates certain principles of the spiritual life which we can apply to our own circumstances.

Originally the Quran offered a critique of religious dogmatism, pointing out the many ways that the original message of the Prophets was often compromised by human prejudices and the privileges of the powerful.

The modern world is rightfully suspicious of any religion that claims to have the exclusive truth. The dominant worldview of much of the world today, especially among the more educated classes, is scientific and secular, cynical about most religious beliefs and practices, viewing them as vestiges of a more primitive mentality. Many people are skeptical of concepts like an eternal soul, and afterlife, a God that governs existence.

Now that many Muslims have adopted a dogmatic mentality, many people in the contemporary world can dismiss Islam as “an unreformed barbarism,” conveniently forgetting that Islamic civilization in its golden ages created multicultural, multi-religious, scientifically progressive, and relatively tolerant societies. If the Qur’an were properly understood it would be recognized as a critique of the dogmatic mentality and the many ways that spiritual truth degenerates.

But the message of Islam remains in its purity, offering universal truth still waiting to be more fully embodied. As humanity reaches a new level of cultural development that includes a new sense of a common human family, wars, persecutions, and narrow prejudices are being reduced. Some of us are convinced that the message of Islam can still offer humanity a universal spirituality adequate to our times. Unlike the aggressive, triumphalist religion that seeks to dominate other religions, there is a willingness among a majority of good-hearted Muslims to be a community of integrity and wisdom that can make a positive contribution to humanity.

The work that remains to be done today is to grasp Islam’s true potential, and to purify our understanding of those elements that contradict that original intent.

Islam began as a phenomenon of moral magnetism and spiritual energy. As time went on, however, the need for a more formal legal system became apparent. There is evidence that Muslim scholars turned to Jewish law as the most obvious example of a functioning legal system. Jewish law was written in Arabic and had its center in Baghdad. By the time Imam Shafi formulated his own legal school, key concepts of Jewish law had been incorporated into Islamic law as guiding principles:

The four usul al-fiqh, “roots of [Islamic] jurisprudence,” are qur’an, sunna, ijma`, and qiyas. It is here proposed that these roots correspond, both linguistically and conceptually, with four basic sources of Talmudic law. Qur’an, the Islamic scriptural revelation and first root of the law, corresponds with miqrā, the Talmudic term for the Jewish scriptural revelation (i.e., the Torah). Sunna, the Islamic oral tradition and the second root of the law, corresponds with mishnāh (the Mishnah), the basic source-text of the Jewish oral law. The third root, ijma’, the consensus of the Muslim jurists, corresponds with the ha-kal juristic consensus found in the second component of the Jewish oral law (the Gemara). The fourth root is qiyas, the Muslim juristic logic. This, based originally on analogy (though it came to have a wider scope), corresponds with the Talmudic heqqes, reasoning by analogy.”[2]

Useful as it may have been to draw on other legal systems, the unfortunate side effect of formulating Islamic law in strict and detailed terms was that the relationship with God began to take on the character of a legal contract. While the emphasis of early Islam was on sincerity of heart and a direct experience of the Divine, the religion began to be increasingly colored by a dogmatic approach to the spiritual life. The “never-changing Divine laws” came to be understood as rules, commands, and punishments, rather than spiritual laws governing human souls and the cosmos. With this came a belief that we please God most by following external rules, rituals, forms of dress, and behaviors.

Such a legalistic understanding transformed Islam from a religion of faith and love into a religion of fear and judgment. In this restricted view shariah, the broad way of the Prophets, came to be equated with fiqh—the practical legal application of the Quranic revelation to particular circumstances.

The dominant view of Islam today often includes beliefs that contradict the Quran, which is the ultimate reference point for the religion. These internal contradictions entered the Din when people forgot the most obvious and important principle, namely, that something that harms human beings cannot be God’s intent, and is therefore cannot be considered Islamic. Examples of this include: persecuting people for their beliefs, depriving people of basic human rights, and, of course, any form of aggression that is not necessary for defending religious freedom and human rights.

On a more subtle level, it is necessary to deconstruct the Religion of Fear that has usurped the Religion of Mercy and Love. The Religion of Love has survived and been maintained in small circles among sufis, contemplatives, and lovers of God. What has been hidden in these small circles must now be made manifest as the normative understanding of Islam. The man-made Religion of Fear misunderstands the purpose of life, and the deepest possibilities for human development and moral perfection.

Those who are drawn to forms of Islamic belief that are dogmatic, intolerant, and aggressive have been misinformed by a narrow set of ideas which betray the essence of Islam itself. Ignorant of the flexible and compassionate example of the Prophet, the transformative spiritual dimensions of the Qur’an, they are imprisoned instead by a narrow set of beliefs that engender fear in the believers and often hatred toward everything outside of Islam. Since human beings can only think with the ideas they have received, this poverty of ideas that has been presented as Islam constricts their hearts and souls.

Among the questions that Muslims might be asking themselves at this critical time:

Can we deconstruct the religion of fear and replace it with a religion of love? Can Muslims emphasize the loving example of the Prophet Muhammad, giving due recognition to the great masters of love like Ibn Arabi, Rumi, and other true Awliya like the Walisonga of Indonesia?

Can we develop the forms of relationship and community that will humanize Islam and provide a context in which adab (spiritual courtesy), akhlaq (dignified character), and true consciousness can develop?

Can Muslims clearly communicate their respect for other religions? This does not mean that all religious formulations are equally true, but rather that we are searching for common ground on which we can agree and benefit humanity.

Can Muslim men in leadership positions find a way to honor women, invite them into the conversations of our era, and benefit from their feminine wisdom?

Can Muslims encourage the artistic and cultural resources that can inspire the young—including music, cinema, and literature?

Can Muslims correct the notion that human beings please God most by concentrating on ritualistic forms, prescribed forms of dress, merely imitative behavior, and a judgmental moralizing? Can we instead teach and embody sincerity and purity of heart through self-awareness and a direct experience of the Divine?

Can we reduce the schizophrenia caused by a religious culture that sustains anachronistic, irrelevant, and hypocritical norms dictated by puritanical and patriarchal concerns? Can we recognize the crisis we face: the destruction of our habitat from human greed and out of control capital?

Working to achieve these goals would awaken a new spirit, excite and inspire the demoralized young, including those who are deceived by extremist propaganda, and communicate to the world that Muslims are not the enemy, but essential allies in solving the problems of our time.

 

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[1] For this rendering of ḥunafā’ (sing. ḥanīf), see sūrah 2, note 110.

[2]   Counterparts. Judith Romney Wegner. The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan., 1982), pp. 25-71

2017-06-01T11:22:41+00:00