Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
Islamic Garden in Lausanne, Switzerland

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sharia and its psychological consequences

Building on my post on Sharia as a legal hermeneutic of Siratal Mustaqim, I have been thinking about how the development of Sharia over the first two centuries of the explosion of Islam on the world's scene can impact contemporary Muslims in the post-modern secular age. Dr. Shabbir Akhtar's book "The Quran and the Secular Mind" addresses this issue forthrightly and highlights many of the psychological consequences:

"In traditional cultures, especially rural ones, people rarely chose anything since they were rarely confused and uncertain, despite the precarious dependence on nature for food and survival. The range of choice was narrowed down by religion which supplied certainties in areas which, if left to individual regulation, would defy simplification. Not only rites of passage (such as marriage) but all one's life was arranged, pre-arranged, and sometimes well-arranged. The same religious conviction which dictated life choices also consoled victims who had to suffer stoically for a whole life-time for choices wrongly made. Even tragedy and suffering here did not derive their character from the inherent uncertainty of choice but rather from the intensity of what one must suffer.

Life is complicated but religious conviction convincingly simplifies it. A guide, such as a pastor or sheikh, apparently has correct answers to the universal complications of life, identity and relationships and is therefore admired as an expert in the art of living well. Like sages and shamans, religious experts are thought to know the correct solution to every moral dilemma and they speak with seductive clarity and certainty. This was once the province of the philosopher. Modern secularized culture has lost faith in saints,sages and philosophers - though not in heroes, a type that pre-dates the rise of organized religion and outlives its demise.

'Wisdom' sounds pretentious to us; we replace it with psychologically prestigious words such as 'maturity' and 'healthy normality'. Many in secular society replace the authoritative guidance of the religious expert with the expertise of the fallible but learned doctor, the attorney, the car mechanic, the social worker and so on. But the delegation of responsibility and authority is present even in free secular cultures; the existentialists, particularly Soren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre, were outraged by our modern preference for abdicating our freedom and the burden of responsibility it inevitably brings. They accused us of preferring to live in indolence and bourgeois prudence rather than in the intensity and heat of risky passion.

The range of unregulated, potentially free, conduct is much greater in modern western and western-influenced cultures than in Muslim countries. The tradition-directed Muslim, unlike the inner-directed westerner, feels little need for making private decisions. For Muslims, sacred law (shari'ah; Q: 45:18) regulates in detail all behaviour. Revealingly, all schools of Islamic law are medieval canons formulated between the middle of the eighth Christian (second Islamic) to the middle of the ninth (Christian) centuries. While piecemeal changes were made in these closed legislative canons, no one updated them systematically to accommodate the cataclysmic changes caused by western colonization of the non-western world. Only family law remained, with one exception, unaltered by colonial penetration of the Islamic world.

Through informal and undeclared social pressure and the explicit power of the law, traditional cultures dictate a blind conformity to inherited norms. This restricts freedom while reducing the amount of undue social awkwardness or confusion. Paternalistic legislation regulates conduct on the principle that the citizens are like children and know only their wishes, not their best interests. Both religious and secular ritual ensures that we have ready-made answers and postures for life's complexities, a socially healthy state of affairs since few people are poets capable of penning original lines of condolence or congratulation. So long as religious ritual does not deteriorate into a lifeless and hypocritically formal pose, it facilitates social intercourse.

If Muslims become free of religious structures, what are they free to be or to do? From a religious perspective, there are liabilities in having freedom. For example, free inquiry need not lead eventually to the adoption of religious orthodoxy. Only foolishly optimistic religious professionals would patiently wait for the intellectual curious youth of their community to finally return to the fold after a subversive university education, not to mention the whip and lash of life's less intellectual changes of fortune. Modern liberal philosophy of education is founded on a respect for the autonomy and intrinsic worth of the unended intellectual quest rather than on a persistent defence of a dogmatic creed known beforehand with authoritative conviction. Dogma, concludes the liberal pedagogue, is a worse enemy of truth than mere falsehood.

In a free society with free inquiry, we cannot avoid apostasy from the faithful community. Some will reject the faith of their forefathers and convert to a rival and novel interpretation of life and its mysteries. After experiencing sceptical encounters, believers might sense a weakening in their religious commitment. If capable of thinking reflectively, they might become self-conscious of their faith and experience it as mere faith: a commitment that surpasses the limits of rationally established certainty and thus requires the supra-rational leap of faith. From here, it is a short step to total disbelief since certain liberties of thought tend inevitably towards agnosticism and atheism.

In the aftermath of freedoms of belief and action, we expect dissension in the household of faith. Modern secular societies enable us to study the world's faiths and ideologies; sincere seekers may therefore systematically scrutinize many options and decide to desert their communities of birth. A religiously free society must legalize desertion from the Islamic community too since some Muslims are Muslims only by chance, not by choice. Individual verses of the Quran, if we adopt a verso-centric and atomistic perspective on the book, support individual choice (Q:2:256). The Quran discourages this approach and accuses Muslims and earlier communities of being selective in their use of scripture (Q:2:85; 15:90-1). Islamic law, relying additionally on the Prophetic traditions, the learned community's collective opinion, and analogical reasoning, does not permit the conscience of the individual to over-ride the consensus of the community. Apostasy is punishable by death; and the community is infallible. In a Prophetic report with a fairly strong chain of transmission, Muhammad said: 'God will not permit my community to agree to an error'. The individual believer, however, is neither exempt nor secure from error."

~ Excerpted from "The Quran and the Secular Mind - a Philosophy of Islam" by Dr. Shabbir Akhtar, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. (2008, pp. 54-56).

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