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In a brief interlude between two debates at a culture festival, I encountered the film ”Innocence of Muslims”. Fast-forwarding through the trailer, three minutes was sufficient to make up my mind: an amateurish mishmash of overplayed, parodic scenes unworthy of notice.
But notice it got. Anger is boiling in the Muslim world, with mass mobilisation to restore the honour of the prophet in East and West. In a few days an intricate picture emerged, too complicated for anyone to pretend they have grasped its complexities. Suicide bombings and attacks on embassies have led to the loss of many lives. Large demonstrations are held daily. We’re flooded with news and analysis. We see, hear and are tormented by the riddle of how a low budget flick of this calibre can trigger an international crisis. After all our efforts at drawing acceptable borders between freedom of religion and freedom of speech, we should have progressed further than this. But here we are again: conflict and strife.
Some attempt to explain the new wave of protest by pointing to the post-revolutionary chaos in the Arab world, the rampant unemployment and widespread anti-American attitudes. One notes the growth of right wing extremist groups and increasing scepticism, or outright hostility, towards Muslims in the west. Experts have covered all these economic and political aspects. But where did the religious perspective go, in a conflict triggered by criticism of religion and festering because of the defence of it? It seems the analysts’ judgement is coloured by their local atmosphere, where the liberal version of religions has long since buried all memory of religious wars. As someone whose background is in Muslim culture and faith, I find these analyses good, but inadequate.
The enraged demonstrators inside and outside the Muslim world, valuing the honour of the Muslim prophet over not only freedom of speech, but human rights and other man made laws, have different motives as well as varying political, social and moral values. But they all emphasize the status of the prophet in Islam. Exalted and unassailable. Infallible and untouchable. I argue that the questions arising from the current, tense situation cannot be formulated – far less answered – without taking the religious aspect into consideration.
The history of religion
So let me write a few words on religion, not as a static artefact, but as an historic process. The tradition and collective experience of Islam has been shaped by a multitude of influences – and I believe that is grounds for cautious optimism. The explosive rage on behalf of the prophet is inextricably connected to dogma and doctrine developed in a phase of Islam long after the death of the prophet himself. The orthodox dogma of the Quran an eternally existing, rather than created, message, and the doctrine of the infallibility of the messenger of God, is a theological-philosophical pairing constructed in a time when civil war raged under the caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib. In the year 827 the dogma was consolidated by the caliph al-Ma´mun, after one of two rival factions, the Umayyads (today’s Sunnis), had marginalised Ali’s followers (the Shias). In other words, centralizing political power in the newly established Islamic empire went hand in hand with the cementing of the holy texts and elimination of all theological challenges. A significant school at the time, Mu´tazila, distanced itself from these irrational doctrines, and for that reason had to go into hiding.
But what has history from eight and ninth century Arabia to do with the attacks on embassies and widespread violence in response to a film critical of Islam produced in 21st century USA? Everything! To attack the ”sacredness” of the prophet was, logically, interpreted as an attack on the fundaments of the classical faith. In this rigid theological context, a caricature that humanises and reduces the prophet is an outright attack on the very underpinnings of thefaith.
I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this in recent years. It has become apparent to me that this dogma must be challenged, not only to resolve the current conflict between speech versus faith, but to free the Islamic tradition from the cage that has led to intellectual and philosophical stagnation for centuries. This is the most significant barrier to a reform theology, and to the introduction of liberal ideas into Muslim culture and society.
Reading with new eyes
A simple feat of logic should be what is needed to break this wall of dogma, on which such a large volume of classical theological literature is based. But as we know, logic isn’t the optimal way to counter what resides in the spiritual and religious sphere. Nevertheless, it is my moral duty to present this challenge to my own. I keep within the Islamic tradition, and will not support my argument with a single non-Muslim source. I adamantly believe we Muslims have the knowledge and tools we need for analysis within our own tradition. All we need is to read with new eyes.
The following story is found in classical Islamic history books and is known to most Muslims: shortly before the battle at Badr in the western park of the Arabian peninsula (624), and after the prophet Muhammad had placed his troops in formation, a disciple, Hubab, asks if this choice of military position is revealed by God, or is a tactical choice by the prophet himself. The prophet replies it was his own choice, to which Hubab replies: ”Prophet, this isn’t the right position.” In the story, the prophet follows the advice of Hubab and orders the troops to march to the nearest source of water and block the enemy from accessing it. Only due to this new tactic do the Muslims win the battle, considered the turning point in the Muslim fight against the heathen tribes.
The prophet made a serious miscalculation in a critical war situation, in a crucial phase of Islamic history. The guidance that corrected it came from an individual in the Muslim community, not directly from God. What should this tell us about the prophet and the creation of the Quran? An infallible and holy figure can give us a heavenly book where not a character shall change. But a regular, chosen human being can convey the message of God that is needed for the times.
Reforming Islamic theology does not involve throwing all our tradition overboard. It is about establishing methods for rational reflection and reasoning. To discard imitation and repetition. We need to stop branding the rationalists amongst us as heretics, and rather look upon them as creative challengers and renewers. Only by freeing our religion from the shackles of history, the paralyzing dogmas, can we deny amateur films and simple caricatures the destructive powers capable of inducing the apocalyptic scenes we see today.
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