The divine manifests through cultural symbols in a particular social setting for its message filters through personal psyche and reflects the social personality. That is why we witness varied forms of manifestations and representations of the universal Islam in local idioms. At individual and social level, faith gets its expression and representation through cultural concepts and symbols. For instance, the bridal symbolism in the poetry of South Asian mystical tradition depicts the soul as bride longing for her union with the Beloved.
Hazrat Amir Khusrau’s poem “Main to piya say naina lada aayi ray (I have just come after making eyes meet with my love)” immortalises his love of Nizamuddin Auliya. The poem is suffused with love, craving and longing for the beloved. Actually, it symbolises soul’s yearning for a glimpse of divine. Such a feminised mystical expression may not resonate well with the sense and sensibilities of a person in Gilgit-Baltistan who inhabit a different cultural space.
A certain segment of liberals in Pakistan propose an easy solution for the complex social and political issues in Pakistan by enjoining the followers of faith to abandon religion. They are of the view that the current morass of Pakistani society stems from religion, and assume that the post religious phase in society will automatically create a utopia of harmony.
There might be an element of truth in this claim but it’s not the total truth. Granted that if we take religion away from people of Pakistan, it will not resolve the issues and challenges because people will keep behaving the same when it comes to civic behaviour in traffic or in public. The reason for immutability of behaviour is that cultural ethos and social structures are deeper than skin-deep religiosity.
A better way to bring about change in social mindset is to invest in society to create social capital. A society with strong social and cultural capital aestheticises different spheres of life including norms and demeanour, whereas a society with poor social and cultural capital cannot afford aesthetics in life world.
With the passage of time, modes of representation change with changes in economy and technology. In the post cold war period, Islam has manifested itself in different forms. This was necessitated by disintegration of traditional Islam, and diversity of loci where Islam is imagined differently by diverse cultural groups of Islamicate. Globalisation has facilitated the exposure of localised Islam to other Islams inhabiting in different social settings and geographies. Such a localised Islam is not amenable to the definitions of liberal Muslims and Islamists. Owing to this, both liberal and Islamist imagination fails to explain unconceptualised Islams within Islamdom.
To escape the unthought domain of liberals and Islamists, it is indispensable to create conceptual foment and mental angst, which will propel the faithful in Islamdom to explore alternate ways of experiencing the sacred instead of enwrapping him/herself in the comfort of dogmatic enclosure and ossified rituals. In order to bring about shift from stagnancy of comfort to intellectual restiveness, the Muslim tradition of empathetic heresy and sweet blasphemy can be employed. Today’s heresy becomes part of the new social imaginary in the future.
Islamic history is full of examples wherein intellectuals were first labelled as heretics for their heterodox view, but later same people became rich resource for symbols and metaphors for revolt, commitment, love, divine, and truth.
The thought police of Muslims dubbed Al-Farabi, Ibn-al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr al-Razi, Abu Yazidal-Bastami, Mansur al-Hallaj, Al Muarri, Ibn Sina, Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Rushd, Dr. Taha Hussein etc., as heretics (zindiq). Now Muslim apologists of both religious and liberal camps flaunt heretics of the past as paragons of Muslim civilisation. However, both categorisations are misnomers because they were product of the cultural milieu of Islamdom where a thinker is supposed to rise above the prevalent system of thoughts and explore and unravel enigmas of life and realities of the world through individual quest.
Unlike poets and mystics, heresy for the sake of heresy has become the norm of thinkers who declare themselves as liberals. The art of committing sweet blasphemy and heresy has rich history in Islamdom. Historically, Muslim philosophers, poets and Sufis develop aesthetics of sweet blasphemy. Employment of aesthetic and artistic dimensions in intellectual project will help Islam to become beautiful, and infuse beatific vision of divine in Islamdom that has been rendered into a sterile zone by the guardians of divine.
Although obscurantist forces have engulfed the intellectual horizons of Islamdom, there is still a silver lining on the clouds in the shape of works of scholars who explore aspects of Islam and Islamdom by combining critical, creative, aesthetic and philosophical dimensions. In the contemporary intellectual landscape, there is an emerging spirit of Mu’tazilite thought that combines rationality of classical Islam with modern social sciences. This beauty reflects in the scholarship work of Mohammed Arkoun, Taha Hussaein, Hassan Hanafi, Muhsin Mehdi, Edward Said, Aziz Esmail, Fatima Mernissi etc.
These scholars are different from traditional liberal scholarship of colonial and post-colonial period for two reasons. First, it is difficult to categorise them easily under the label of liberal or otherwise. Second, their scholarship is unlike the scholars of liberal Islam who gear their efforts to reform through monomaniac approach of liberalism. Rather there is a scholarship driven by multiple purposes and perspectives. It is kind of intellectual nomadism that is necessary to pick the pieces of fragmented reality in postmodern age.
Unlike the liberal penchant for reform, the new cadre of scholars on Islam wants to subvert the dominant regimes of thought. This may be done by subverting the Ghazalian postulates in his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers where he accused philosophers like Avicenna and Al-Farabi of committing heresy, and labelled them irreligious. Dominance of his Ash‘arite theology in the later period stunted the growth of reason and contributed to excess of unreason in Islamdom.
To subvert the Ghazalian paradigm, it is imperative to indulge in nomadic wandering to create an intellectual collage and hybridity that incorporates elements from the domains of sacred and profane, and ideas from Muslim and non-Muslim sources. Such subversion is indispensable because the inhibition of reason for the last seven centuries has created an epistemological gap in Muslim societies. This knowledge lacuna has come into being because the realities of postmodern world exceed existing cognitive framework of Muslim thought. The marriage of Mu’tazilite philosophy with modern social science may be blasphemous for religious and liberal puritans but it will be intellectually rewarding; for commingling of the two will broaden the intellectual horizon that is currently covered by dogmatic clouds of liberal and radical Islam.
Islamdom has remained within the boundaries of religious dogma and liberal limits for a long time now. Let Islamdom transgress the epistemological boundaries of sacred and profane. Only by crossing over the boundaries of thought, we can explore new vistas of life and dimensions of religion because “a boundary is”, in the words of Martin Heidegger, “not that at something stops, but that from which something begins.” The act of crossing the boundaries will help in opening of new pathways for nomadic thought to emerge. Such a nomadic knowledge is in a better position than fixed ones to deploy hybridity in its epistemological posture. In the intellectual domain, the nomadic scholarship will help in destroying the fixity of ideologies of liberalism and Islamism, determinacy of epistemological structures, authority of scholarship and purity of guardians of liberal and puritan Islam.
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More than 900 years ago, Al-Ma’aari clearly stated, “Islam does not have a monopoly on truth.” Similarly liberal Islam does not have monopoly on truth. It is high time to bid adieu to religious incoherence of Ghazali and liberal Fukuyama to start a new historical chapter at the end of history. Instead of fixed epistemological positions, let us embark upon intellectual exploration from sceptical but artistic perspective of Al-Ma’aari because “A little doubt is better than total credulity” towards meta-narratives of liberalism and religion.