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Muslim Philosopher, Reconstructionist Rabbi and Violence

A couple of years ago I had the occasion of meeting a Reconstructionist Rabbi. As we were discussing my philosophy thesis — which was on Nietzsche and an Indian-Muslim philosopher named Muhammad Iqbal — the Rabbi shocked me when he … Read More

By / September 11, 2007

A couple of years ago I had the occasion of meeting a Reconstructionist Rabbi. As we were discussing my philosophy thesis — which was on Nietzsche and an Indian-Muslim philosopher named Muhammad Iqbal — the Rabbi shocked me when he said that not only did he know who Iqbal was, but that he was actively studying his works. I can understand how the Rabbi became aware of Muhammad Iqbal – not only was Iqbal a friend of Bertrand Russell, Alfred Whitehead and Bergson and thus part of early 20th century philosophy – but he wrote a book called “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” which describes the religious experience as one that is lived and evolving; an experience that contains movement and change; an experience that borrows from the tradition but is not limited by it. These are principles at the heart of Jewish reconstructionism as well. In light of the fact that I was the only one the Rabbi had ever met who was thoroughly conversant in Iqbal, while the Rabbi was the only non-Muslim I had met who knew Iqbal well, one would imagine that we would spend the entire night talking about the book. We did talk the whole night, but not about the book. Our conversation became waylayed by violence – not between us, but the reality of terrorism, suicide bombings, and to some extent, honor killings. That conversation, in itself, was quite interesting. I insisted that the violence was problematic per se, that it had no excuses, and to some extent no causes other than the fact that the texts made themselves amenable to such readings. He insisted that Western foreign policy had something to do with Muslim violence.

Yet, now that I think about it, I find it so saddening and depressing that we didn’t get to talk about Iqbal’s book. I get especially melancholy when I think what Iqbal would feel if he found out that eighty years on from his Islam-shaking book, a reconstructionist Rabbi and a reformist Muslim law student, opted to talk about cave-dwelling psychopaths, barbarous patriarchal fathers, and deranged anarchists, instead of talking about the Islamic legal tradition, about “the spirit of movement in Islam,” or, about “the spiritual democracy which is the ultimate aim of Islam.”

Iqbal’s time in the world was an interesting one. It appeared that in reaction against the colonial powers, Muslims had come together, and for the most part, were actively engaged in reconciling republicanism with religion, and liberalism with Islam. They were integrating their minorities; and basing the citizenship of their nations, not on religiosity or perceived piety, but on their shared nation-hood. Iqbal discuses almost all of these ideas in this essay from the Reconstruction, suggesting that Muslims ought to consider making a "League of Muslim nations" which is less concerned with Caliphates and more concerned with their internal well-beings. Yet, today, just a few decades later, various hardline organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamaat e Islami, and the Hizb ut Tahrir, all along with the Wahhabi machine, have created the conditions for a complete breakdown in Islam. Emanating from the fringes of these organizations came the terrorists and anarchists. Today, Iqbal’s vision, which presupposed the perpetuity of stability and peace, has now been replaced by entropy and chaos — no one knows what will happen. The Sunni Islam of Iqbal's era — which could give rise to nation-states — seems to be teetering. The things that people who take interest in Islam talk about are, deplorably shameful, both in their content and quality. Suicide? Collateral Damage? Noncombatant immunity? Iqbal thought that none of these would ever be issues, so that when you read him, eighty years ago, he neither addresses them, nor conceives of their possibility. Therefore, in that sense, Islamic “reform” appears to have gone backwards. Right? But here is my conundrum, the more that I think about it, the less I can blame the reformists. It is not as if Islam ceased to produced liberal reformists of Iqbal’s ilk. There was Fazlur Rahman, and Muhammad Shahrour, and Amin Ahsan Islahi, and Abullahi an-Naim, and today Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, and a vast collection of second tier reformers, situated in hundreds of universities all across the world, all of whom have been emphasizing and re-emphasizing the themes that Iqbal set forth. Why has the influence of these people waned? Why isn’t Iqbal’s monumental poetic compendium — he is also considered the greatest of two Indian poets of the 20th century — on the lips of Muslims today like it was one hundred years ago? Many people like to ask the question “what went wrong with Islam” and look back to colonialism or all the way back to the Mongol invasion. My submission is quite simple: sometime in the early third of the 20th century Islam was going to be OK; but something went wrong between 1935 and 2001. Why, today, when we should be talking about how Muslim states can better organize their systems, are we talking about non-state people, lone suicidal wolves, mercenary killers, and thugs? Western foreign policy clearly has something to do with the problem. It isn't the sole cause though, because as I've pointed out numerous times, fanatics pre-dated 20th century Western political hegemony (this time its American rather than British), and would post-date it even if the US were to remove all of our military bases. Still, when I see articles like this one (see the one on Iran), and consider the fact that even I, an extreme skeptic towards reformist successes, can't always blame reformists for not doing enough, I have to take a step back. Why are liberals, and conservatives, who care about Islamic reform, so unwilling to accept blame for our policies? If it is reasonable to expect that Chomsky speak out against Islamic radicals, I think it is extremely reasonable to expect that hawks, liberals, and conservatives stop creating a world which feeds, breeds, perpetuates violence.

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