Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Islam, Iran, and the Reform Movement

Iran is in the news constantly, and much of our attention has focused on the manufactured nuclear debate.     In the meantime, Iranians continue to have some of the richest and most fascinating debates about Islam anywhere.     I recently had a conversation with the JARAS website, which is one of the most important outlets for the Green Movement (the Reform movement) in Iran.  I am going to post a translation here as well. It may be of interest to some friends.

Q1: You have recently published a book called "Memories of Muhammad." Can you explain its main thesis and ideas?

1. The name of this volume is “Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters.” The main idea is that while non-Muslims have a very shallow and distorted understanding of the Prophet, Even for Muslims our understanding of the Prophet’s being, his spiritual and revolutionary significance, is also quite shallow, particularly in the last few centuries. Every Muslim movement and government talks about “returning” to the “Sunnah/Sonnat” [Tradition of the Prophet, Example of the Prophet], but in the process of doing so we have largely come to neglect the Adab (refined manners) and Akhlaaq (ethics) of the Prophet (S).

Q2: Is your primary audience Muslims, or non-Muslims?

2. I started to write this book for a general non-Muslim audience, who know nothing about the Prophet. However, the more I researched it, the more it became apparent to me that we as Muslims also know so little about the Prophet. Everyone talks about the “Amr bi ‘l-ma’ruf wa nahy an al-munkar” [commanding the good/known, prohibiting the forbidden], but we don’t know about akhlaaq-e Muhammadi [Muhammad-like ethics], we don’t know about mi’raj [Heavenly Ascension], we don’t know about fellowship (sohbat) with the Prophet. We have reduced a spiritual and mystical revolutionary who came to revolutionize and uproot tribalism and social hierarchies into a justification for traditionalism and legalism.

Q3: You propose that Muslims have forgotten important aspects of the Prophet's legacy. Can you elaborate on this?

3. We do not need to look very far to find proof of how we as Muslims have forgotten about the legacy of the Prophet. Less than a generation after the passing away of the Prophet, we have companions of the Prophet lining up on different parts of a battlefield to kill each other. Less than two generations after the Prophet, we have the family of the Prophet being massacred by the ruling Muslim dynasties. The Prophet who came to overturn tribal patterns presented a profound challenge to what became an Empire. So ironically we find ourselves in a situation where the “Tradition” of Islam ends up justifying itself by tracing things back to the Prophet, without embodying either the Prophet’s spiritual qualities of forbearance and justice, or the radical commitment to standing with the poor. The real tradition of the Prophet was to be on the side of justice, on the side of the poor, on the side of the weak, on the side of mercy, on the side of global compassion, regardless of that side happened to be “traditional” or “anti-traditional.” I find it imperative to point out that Qur’anically the only people who justify something on the basis of “having found our forefathers doing so” are pagans who are fighting against the prophets.

Q4: In a talk you gave in December 2011, you emphasized the meanings of jihad and revolution from a spiritual perspective. Can you elaborate?

4. The question of inqilaab [revolution] and Jihad on one hand spirituality (Erfaan) is a fascinating one. It seems to me that we are often guilty of two errors. The first is the error of Bin Laden and movements like al-Qaeda, for whom jihad means “kill them, kill them all”, and there is no sense of spirituality, or compassion, or mercy. Not only it is a bastardization of Islamic law (which never sanctions indiscriminate killing), it is also a fundamental misunderstanding of Islam to have all Jalal and no Jamal, thus resulting in in inability to reach Kamal. On the other hand, all too often we hear of a response to the above by emphasizing a kind of spirituality, a type of mysticism, an Erfan, which is completely divorced from any quest for justice in the public realm. That kind of self-purification as well, in my opinion, is a mistake and an abdication of our responsibilities as a human being and as God’s moral deputies (khalifa) on Earth. Instead of either of the above misunderstandings, I believe that what we are called to do is to see the connection, the very real and intimate connection, between purifying our own inner selves and striving for justice in the public realm. In that context, justice is not merely an abstract theoretical notion, but the very commitment to love for fellow human beings in public: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Justice represents the removing and dismantling of every obstacle and every institution that blocks the path towards us acknowledging the full dignity and nobility that every human being on Earth is entitled to. That to me is a revolutionary model of jihad, a mystical revolution that where our self-purification is tied to our service to humanity.

Q5: Is it fair to say that in general you put a great deal of emphasis on the ethical reading of Islam?

5. You are right in the sense that I do place a great deal of emphasis on akhlaaq. The reason for doing so is that I see akhlaaq [ethics] as a key lynchpin of Islamic teachings. On one hand the Prophet (S) had said that “bu’ithtu li utammim makaarim al-akhlaaq”, I was sent to bring a sense of completion to the nobility of manners. So I do see the fullness of Islam in striving towards “akhlaaq-e Muhammadi” [Muhammadi Ethics] And this is distinct from both law and erfaan [mysticism] from my perspective. Both are necessary, neither by itself is sufficient. One problem with “law” as commonly understood is that it is often dependent on a state enforcing it. Ultimately I don’t trust any state to be the enforcer of religion, because doing so means that religion and religious people lose their ability to speak truth to power to the state. If the state is enforcing religion, it has to also interpret a specific meaning to enforce. A state interpreted-and-enforced religion loses its anti-authoritarian and anti-traditional moral force. Nor is akhlaaq exactly erfaan, because by akhlaaq we always do mean some kind of a social ethic. So it starts in the heart, and reaches out to shape our interpersonal relations. That connection between the personal and the interpersonal, shaped by qualities of adab [refined manners], rahmat [mercy], and ‘edaalat [social justice], is what I see as the great genius of Islamic teachings.

Q6: For decades, Muslims have struggled with issues of Islam and Democracy. What's your opinion on this topic?

6. As far as the relation of Islam and democracy, I don’t see Islam as endorsing any one particular system of government. When we study Islamic political theories, we notice a range of political models and systems that are described. Rather, I would say that the ideal Islamic forms of government adapt to each age, and strive to embody certain principles, such as justice, accountability, transparency, distribution of wealth, mercy, and upholding the sanctity of human beings’ lives, honor, property, and reputation. Those principles can be upheld, and trampled upon, in and under a variety of systems.
However, having said that, I do see a vibrant and meaningful democracy as the least flawed form of government, but only if we are speaking about a real democracy. The United States of America claims to be a democracy, but we see special interest groups dominating the actual policies of the place. Israel claims to be a democracy, which would be a joke where it not so tragic and brutal. So obviously the apparatus of democracy is something that we have to be very specific about, and I would much prefer to see Muslims looking at the Turkish example, or even more, the Scandinavian experiments with democracy, the Canadian ones, etc., than the American model.

Q7: As you know, what we are witnessing now is a popular reform movement that has positioned itself against a dogmatic religious government. What has caused people's opinion of a religious government to change?

7. We have witnessed in the last twenty years extraordinary developments in the Iranian context of Islam. As a person who looks at Islam at a global level, I have to tell you that almost no where else in the world do we have the sophisticated discussions of religious authority, pluralism, gender, politics, hermeneutics, etc. that have taken place in Iran. Obviously these discussions are not in the abstract, and are taking place both in the context of and as a reply to the oppressive policies of the Islamic State.
In a real sense I see the work of many reformers as the response of disillusioned idealists. So many of the important reformists in Iran grew up with Imam Khomeini’s teachings, and saw the powerful way in which he correctly diagnosed the ongoing colonial campaign against Iran, and yet were devastated to see that after the revolution we failed to rise above the shortcoming of the Shah’s regime in establishing the just society that many were aspiring to do.
As to the current state of people, what seems to me to be undeniable is that we Iranians have always been on the whole a religious society. It’s not religion that we are against, it is a particularly abusive interpretation of religion and implementation of that interpretation through state apparatus that many are against. In this ways I do part ways with some of the language of if we need a “maximalist”/(farbeh) interpretation of religion or a minimalist/thin interpretation of religion. I would want to begin by focusing on not whether we need more religion or less religion, but what kind of religion, whether it is a religion that upholds the sanctity and dignity of all human life, or one that positions some above others. I would want to follow up by asking who interprets that religion, and how those interpretations are implemented.
We simply have to realize that our methods have to be as noble, as beautiful, as the lofty aims that we claim to espouse. Our methods are the cup from which we drink, and if our methods are unjust, cruel, and ugly, then the water that we will drink from that cup will also be muddied with injustice, ugliness, and hatred. May it be that we, individually and collectively, come to clean the cup of our hearts, the cup of our institutions, and the cup of our government, so that we can drink purely. Then that water could be the water described in the Qur’an:

God gave you “calm as from Himself, and he caused rain to descend on you from heaven, to clean you therewith, to remove from you the stain of Satan, to strengthen your hearts, and to plant your feet firmly therewith. [Qur’an 8:11]

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