Rationalist and Liberal Prospects in Islam

Purpose of the Presentation

It is impossible to understand contemporary global politics without understanding Islam. Throughout the nineteen eighties and nineties fundamentalist and more secular versions of the religion clashed in predominantly Islamic nations, for example in Afghanistan and Algeria - and most recently in Egypt. This situation of course changed substantially the events of September 2001 when a group of Al-Qaeda terrorists caused the deaths of almost 3,000 people. Regardless of the significant questions that still exist concerning U.S. foreknowledge of the events, the U.S. military-industrial complex first engaged in retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan where, according to Jonathan Steele of The Guardian, between 20,000 and 49,600 people died as a consequence of the invasion. Following this the United States led an military campaign in Iraq with clear resource-orientated goals; a cavalier adventure which according to a Lancet study of September 2004 has resulted in 100,000 deaths. Now there is serious talk of extending the front to include Iran as well.

My own interest in Islam is threefold; firstly there is a theological and philosophical concern. Islam has produced some exceptional works in this field, and arguably far surpasses Christianity in its foundational logic and consistency. With our own cultural and religious biases we are all familiar with the names Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Wesley; but are we also familiar with the names Ashari, Averroes, Al-Ghazali and Mulla Sadra? The second interest is historical; Islam has been a social fact for some 1400 hundred years, adopted by billions of individuals with enormous influence through across southern Asia and north Africa. To ignore its historical import is to show a grave indifference to history itself. My third interest is perhaps the most important. We Australians are neighbours to the most populated and diverse predominantly Muslim nation on Earth, namely Indonesia. The outcome of politics and ideology in Indonesia are critically important to the outcome of politics in Australia.

These interests provide an outline for today's presentation. I'll start with a brief sketch of the main theological beliefs and practices of Islam and follow with an equally brief historical sketch. Following this an analysis of contemporary expressions and conclude with the tasks facing Unitarians in relation to Islam, and in particular possible tasks for this Church and others in the Australia-New Zealand region.

Islamic Theology and Practices

Islam is a strictly monotheistic religion whose name literally means "submission to The God". It is based on the teachings of Muhammad as recorded in the Qur'an. Followers of Islam are known as Muslims, a word which means "one who submits to God". Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is an Abrahamic religion. Earlier messengers in the Islamic faith include those of the Abrahamic religions; Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

The Islamic concept of God claims that the deity (note the definite article) is perfect, unique, eternal, self-sufficient, all-powerful, all-knowing and most-merciful. Allah does not resemble anything of this world in any way and is cannot ascribed any physical quality. References in the Qur'an which seem to imply attributes to Allah are analogies and metaphors. As a whole, this seems to be a far more sensible theological foundation that the claims of a deity based on the "likeness and image" of humanity or the proposition in Trinitarian Christianity that a human became God incarnate.

The basic tenet of Islam consists of the testimonies;

"I testify that there is no god but God Almighty, Who is One and there is no associate with Him; and I testify that Muhammad, is His Messenger."

"I believe in God; and in His Angels; and in His Scriptures; and in His Messengers; and in The Final Day; and in Fate, that All things are from God, and Resurrection after death be Truth."

Orthodox Islam considers Muhammad to be the final prophet, whose teachings will will last until the Day of the Resurrection. The Qur'an itself is considered the final revelation of God to humanity and is flawless and immutable.

In terms of further practices, these vary according to the Islamic subgroups of which the two largest are the Sunni and Shi'a. The former are the majority throughout Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the African nations, whereas Shi'a Muslims are a majority in Iraq and Iran. A significant number of Muslims do not adhere to either denomination.

Sunni Islam's essential beliefs and practices are referred to as the Five Pillars of Islam, whereas Shi'a has five Roots of Religion. The Sunni Pillars include the aforementioned profession of faith, five daily prayers, the giving of alms to the poor, fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Shi'a five Roots are more theoretical; they include the expression of monotheism, the command to do good and forbid evil (even if human reason cannot comprehend this design or purpose), the acceptance of prophethood, and of prophet appointed custodians and belief in the day of judgment. The Shi'a denomination also includes twelve branches of religion which includes many of the practices contained in the Sunni five Pillars. Likewise, smaller sects such as the Druze and the Ismaili have seven pillars which include common elements such as charity, fasting during Ramadan, the pilgrimage to Mecca, guardianship and jihad or struggle.

In Islam there is no official authority who determines who is or is not a member of the community of believes, of the Ummah. There is however local implementations and enforcement which are determined by Sharia, or Islamic law. The Qur'an is the foremost source of Islamic law, followed by analysis of the hadith which are are narrations of the Prophet's sayings, deeds and actions. The third source of Islamic law include the consensus of the community and the final source is analogical reasoning. Islamic law concerns the totality of life, everything from government, international relations, commerce and daily living. Local Islamic communities often exclude those they regard as apostates and blasphemers. All major schools of Islamic law consider apostasy to be a capital crime for male perpetrators.

History of Islam

Islam's begins in Arabia in the seventh century which, by the time of Muhammad's death, the Arabian peninsula was under a single Islamic governance. Subsequent Caliphs conquered large areas under the control of Islam taking in term the Palestine, Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. A civil war broke out however, and the empire fractured into separate Caliphates with their own monarchs, legal system and interpretation of the faith.

The Ummayad dynasty established Caliphates in Damascus between 661 and 744, and in Spanish Cordova in 736 to 1031. Conquered people were able to practice their religions although with the requirements of requiring to pay a special tax (jizya) and a set of public restrictions collectively known as dhimmi. The Abbasids overthrew the Ummayads in Damascus in 750 AD, and moved the capital to Baghdad. Under their rule the first theological school of Islam, the Mutzalities, flourished. At this stage, Baghdad was arguably the greatest city of the world with enormous expansion in the arts and sciences and with a multicultural mix of Arabs, Persians and Turks. Islamic jurisprudence was codified and the period also witnessed the evolution of the deeply spiritual (and often considered heretical) branch of Islam known as Sufism.

The bureaucratic cost of running such a large caliphate became increasingly prohibitive and ethnic rivalry challenged the political unity. Further, the intellectual rationalism (although certainly not always liberalism) embodied in the Mutazilite school was challenged and undermined by the more populist and faith-orientated Ash'ari body of thought who notoriously described philosophy as "incoherent". In the thirteenth century Baghdad was attacked and utterly destroyed by the Mongols with up to a million civilians killed. For centuries afterwards Baghdad was little more than a depopulated empty shell.

Following the fall of Baghdad regional powers became the order of the day. The Fatimids were a Shi'a dynasty that ruled Egypt, much of North Africa, Sicily and Syria from 910 to 1171 and notably re-established Cairo as a major city. The Seljuk Turks ruled in different guises from 1037 to 1307 in present-day Turkey, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan. Palestine, as is well known, became a contested ground between the Christian crusaders, the Fatimids, the Seljuks and the Mamluks.

Islam was introduced to the Indian subcontinent in eighth century. In the twelfth century Ghurids dynasty established themselves and early in the thirteenth century conquered Delhi establishing a period of the Delhi sultanates. This conquest is considered by some historians to be the bloodiest in history, with an decline of some 80 million Hindus between 1000 and 1500 AD. The Delhi Sultanate was then incorporated into the Mughal Empire which ruled much of India between 1526 and 1857. During the same period, Sufi missionaries translated their works into Malay converting great numbers of the population from Hinduism and animist beliefs in late thirteenth century. Sumatra became home for a number of Sultanates and by the early sixteenth century Islam took hold of Java from the remains of the Hindu Majapahit Empire.

In 1453, the Islamic state in Anatolia engaged in a successful two-month siege of Byzantium and suddenly absorbed the millennium old Empire into a new Ottoman Empire who established their capital in the conquered city. The Ottomans moved into east and central Europe in the following decades, conquering the Balkans and threatening Vienna in the late seventeenth century. The failure of this siege stopped further advance of the Ottomans, although the Empire continued until the end of the first world war.

Contemporary Expressions

Contemporary expressions of Islam are strongly framed by the historical events of the 20th century. The technological domination and colonisation of European powers from the sixteenth century onwards resulted in almost all Islamic countries under control of the Europeans; the exception being the aforementioned Ottomans. After the European powers fought each other in the first and second world wars many of these countries gained nominal independence and nationalism arose. In Egypt and Turkey attempts have been made to separate Islam from the secular government; as there was in Mossedeq's Iran. In Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism being the ideology of the royal family.

Despite attempts by both federalist Hindus and Muslims the ending of British colonial rule in India led to conflicts, violence and the displacement of millions of people eventually resulting in the formation of the Hindu majority state of India and the Muslim majority states of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Whilst these states have been in some degree of conflict since, this fades into insignificance with the creation of the state of Israel by the United Nations within Palestine region. The defacto situation today, and following wars between Israel and its neighbours in 1948, 1967 and 1973, is that predominantly Muslim Palestine is occupied by predominantly a Jewish Israel whose national borders are far in excess of the original 1947 partition plan.

In the Malay archipelago the differences between the British Malay and Dutch Indonesian colonial powers led to the establishment of two competing regimes that were often in violent conflict. Both however were relatively secular and syncretic in comparison to other regimes. With large populations of Hindu, Buddhist, strongly held animist beliefs in the country and a significant support for various forms of socialism the strict imposition of Islamic state was quite impossible and remains so today. In any case, local Muslims have lived and accepted the diversity of beliefs in the archipelago for hundreds of years. The Sultan of Yogyakarta, for example, sees no contradiction with holding his Muslim faith and convening the annual ceremonial worship of the pagan Goddess of the South Seas.

Taking a broad overview, there are no Muslim majority states in the world which can genuinely be described as 'secular' in the sense that we understand it, with the near-exceptions of Malaysia where Islamic courts retain jurisdiction in matters of family law, Indonesia where Roman-Dutch law dominates within a legal requirement that all citizens must be members of a monotheism (which includes, debatebly, Hinduism), and Turkey which has its own liberal Islamic tradition. Indeed, it as a near-universal feature Muslim-majority nations hold reservations to the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the convention was adopted insofar that it did not conflict with Sharia law. Nations such as Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Iran and Uzbekistan are notable for their gross violations of human rights, including scores of prisoners of conscience, torture and executions.

Tasks for Unitarians

The task ahead for Unitarian-Universalists dealing with Islam in a contemporary setting may seem complex; but that is only the case if we abandon our own religious and political convictions which we have struggled to introduce, and quite successfully, over the centuries.

First and foremost among these is secularism, the separation of religious practice from state law. This has two fronts; the protection for Muslims to express their religion within the of rights granted through secular law within our democratic nations and to promote the separation of Church and State in Muslim-majority nations. In the former case alliance with civil liberties groups is obvious enough; in the latter however political strategies must be carefully considered. In brief, the possibility of a secular Saudi Arabia, or a secular Afghanistan are currently quite remote. The possibility of a secular Malaysia and Indonesia however is quite plausible as is also, I believe, the support for secularism among Palestinians. By forming alliances with liberal Muslims in those nations, and possibly through our own nascent Unitarian churches in the local region we serve to promote, in our own modest way, a modern reformation in Islam that is sorely needed.

As a world religion Islam is a similar situation that Christianity was a few hundred years ago. The technological, commercial and human potential of various nations is hampered and grossly distorted by religious authorities which have far outgrown their usefulness. However these Islamic religious authorities are as unlikely to give up their political power anymore than Christian rulers were. By promoting secularism at home and abroad Unitarians can both advance the political evolution of our neighbours as well as circumventing a potential rise of reactionary religious legal code at home; if Islamic fundamentalism gains ground in Indonesia, one can be utterly assured that Christian fundamentalism will gain ground in Australia.

Related to the notion of secularism is the notion of higher criticism of religious texts; a position championed in Christianity by rationalists and nineteenth centuries which sought to understand the contextual composition of a text and in doing so demythologised the Bible, turning it from a supernatural source of scriptural truth to a contribution to spiritual understanding and cultural history. Whereas this is now accepted except among to the most conservative of Christians, or Jews for that matter regarding the Torah, it is not yet the case with the Qur'an Most Muslims accept the idea that the Qur'an is eternal, perfect and unchanging, having been created in heaven, revealed by Gabriel and recorded perfectly. This is despite the supernatural claims, despite the fact that Arabic was not developed written language and despite the archaeological evidence of early editions of the Qur'an differing significantly.

This remains a significant stumbling bloc for Islam to develop as a religion. Having raised its holy book to the status of unchanging perfection it inevitably results in unchanging imperfection. For even if such a magical perfect text had been composed and had been been perfectly recorded it still requires fallible humans to read and interpret the message as is obvious by differing interpretations by different Muslim scholars. In this particular context, revival of Mutazili thought, which emphasized itjihad, the scholarly interpretation of the Qur'an as a created text, deserves close attention and support by Unitarians. Indeed, two of Islams greatest contemporary scholars, Harun Nasution of Indonesia and Nasr Hami Abu Zayd of Egypt (and exiled to the Netherlands as an apostate) represent a small, but potentially revolutionary humanist and rationalist body of Islamic thought.

The two themes secularism and rationalism, and in that order, should be our keywords when considering our approach to Islam or for that matter any other religion. Our particular geopolitical context demands that we form alliances, and as early as possibly, with those Muslims who aspire to similar objectives. Our region is what we, ANZUA, can realistically influence; there are Unitarian Churches in Indonesia; there are many liberal Muslims also in the nation. By working alongside with these groups we promote an environment where the proposed "clash of civilizations", so dearly beloved by the arms industry and religious fanatics alike, never eventuates and is indeed defeated. Instead we will be able to approach our neighbours, extend the hand of friendship, greet them and say "peace".

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, June 11, 2006