THREE THEMES OF INQUIRY
For many Muslims, answers to the three issues that cut cross this series of programs - Governance, Gender and Modernity - can usually be found by looking backwards, to the founding years of Islam. Traditionalists believe that every word, every action, every institution must be understood literally; the Islamist and the liberal, in very different ways, take the principles of those early years and adapt them to modern conditions. The important difference between the two is that the Islamist believes Islam is a total political and social ideology, complete in and of itself; the liberal or reformist uses the principles of the Past to forge a new synthesis that takes into account contemporary realities.
But for most Muslims the central texts of Islam - the Qur'an and Hadith (Actions and Sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) are the keys to faith, as the Torah and Bible are for Jewish and Christian But in the Muslim case, there is a difference. The first Umma or Muslim community is regarded as the ideal human community, the blueprint for a successful Muslim community fourteen hundred years, and many worlds, later. The Prophet Mohammad is not divine. Indeed, he is all-too-human. But for many Muslims, he is the model of the Perfect Man, whose every action they should try to emulate. Whether you hold a doctorate and live a privileged life in the old Muslim city of Hyderabad (India), or are an illiterate, unemployed dockworker in Casablanca, what the Prophet did or said (or what you have been told he did or said, which is unfortunately more probable and more important) are facts that live with you every day, in a way that details of the life of Jesus or of Moses simply do not for most Christians or Jews.
In no other major world religion is the interpretation and explanation of Sacred Texts quite so central to living that religion today. Christianity, of course, also focuses on the actions and sayings of one man. But that man is believed to be the Son of God, not an illiterate businessman who seems to have preferred the company and intellect of women to those of his fellow tribesmen, and to have been all too human in his self-doubt. Islam truly is unique in the weight it places on the lives of a handful of men and women in seventh-century Arabia - Mohammad, his wives and Companions - over a very short period - ten years (622-632 CE or Years 1-10 of the Hijra) in, first, Medina, then Mecca. (While the first Islamic community was established in Mecca, the first Islamic state was established in Medina after the Muslims departed Mecca. Subsequently, the Muslims reentered Mecca in triumph).
How scholars interpret the Qur'an and Hadith matters very much to the daily lives of ordinary Muslims. Are they to be interpreted literally? And if so, are their meanings clear and unequivocal? Many Muslims believe passionately that there can be no possible ambiguity about the meaning of the Qur'an, that it is literally the Word of God.
The sanction for much of a Muslim's daily behavior is found, however, in the Hadith (The sayings and actions of the Prophet). Some very great Islamic scholars have spent their whole lifetimes studying the Hadith. Al-Bukhari (d. 870 CE), for example, traveled throughout much of the then-Islamic world, examining and evaluating over 60,000 attributed sayings of the Prophet, eventually discarding all but 7,000 in his collection Al-Sahih (The Authentic). Sa'id al-'Asqalani (d. 1484 CE) in his seventeen-volume Fath al-bari documented the Isnad or paths by which these alleged sayings or actions had been passed down orally, until they were collected a hundred and fifty years after Mohammad's death. The judgments made by these and other scholars are not just the stuff of arcane intellectual hairsplitting. Passed down over the centuries by word of mouth, through sermons, in folk-tales and folk wisdom, they directly inform the thinking and behavior of millions of ordinary Muslims. And they can literally mean the difference between freedom and slavery, life and death itself.
Any attempt, therefore, to discover what Islam does or does not say about democracy, gender equality, reason or free will, has to start with these texts. For centuries, mullahs or Imams (prayer-leaders in the mosque) have claimed, whether they understood Arabic or not, a monopoly of their interpretation. These clerics denied, and still deny, ordinary Muslims the capacity and right to reach their own individual understanding of either Qur=an or Hadith; or their right as Muslims to exercise Ijtihad or independent judgment to interpret Islam to meet their individual circumstances. Some of these clerics assert that only those steeped in ilm or knowledge, who are trained in al-fiqh or religious science, are qualified to decipher the true meaning of these texts. The more intransigent and orthodox would also disdain Sufis (Muslim mystics), who claim to reach a direct understanding of God without intermediaries.
The orthodox obviously obey these injunctions. However, it is important to note that, as with most people, there is usually a discrepancy (conscious or unconscious) between what people say and what they do. Many Muslims, especially in the countryside, are openly skeptical about the authority of the mullah and would, at best, pay lip service to them.
Both the Qur'an and Hadith were transmitted, first orally, then in written form by human beings. This makes them open to historical interpretation. The Hadith would seem especially vulnerable. Can conversations, word inflections, be passed down, without the slightest deviation or mistake over ten days, let alone ten, twenty or a hundred years? And in total interpretative neutrality? No omission of word or phrase? No paraphrase or word substitution? Even the Qur'an itself is not immune from possible misinterpretation: Arabic allows for gender endings that can be both masculine and feminine, depending on the context. But context reintroduces the human element, subjectivity, and the possibility of different interpretation.
Context, in fact, is often the key to understanding Qur'anic texts. Many of the revelations from the later Medina period of the Qur'n are in fact answers from God to specific dilemmas facing the Muslims. Many suras (chapters), for example, are addressed solely to men. One of the Prophet's wives complains. Almost immediately, God answers (Sura 33 Ayat 35), specifically addressing both men and women as equals, both emotionally and intellectually. This verse was then and is once again today the basis of feminist interpretations of the Qur'an. Unfortunately, its unequivocal message is also contradicted by other verses.
Examples abound - the design of the mosque in Medina, how to deal with nonbelievers, whether a menstruating woman can attend the mosque - of the practicality of early Islam. The Meccan (early) portions of the Qu'an are the framework; the Medinan chapters are the bricks and mortar. If an urgent problem arises, God suggests a practical solution.
Islam is not a monolithic faith. Nor is it, in theory at least, one of blind obedience, whatever many mullahs may believe to the contrary. Islam can be an infinitely plastic religion, capable of endless adaptation to fit the temper and circumstances of its followers. A religion, in short, of free will and individual reason. Indeed, if it did not possess this quality how could it ever have adapted so easily in societies as different as Western Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia or China? Ironically, Muslims today often overlook or minimize these differences. Orthodox Islam seems frightened of its own richness and variety. Too often, it seems to agree with western stereotype: that Muslims should all march in lockstep, that experimentation must be punished.
But just as there are many temperaments in Islam, so also there are a wide range of answers to each of our three questions. In each case, any attempt to understand should start with historical context. What was the practice in pre-Islamic Arabia, the so-called Jahaliyya or Age of Darkness. What was the specific context into which a revelation was given? What does the Qur'an actually say? What did Mohammad himself say or do? How did Muslims, then and later, understand his sayings or behavior? Is their behavior today consistent with the temper of individual ayat or hadith? If not, why not? Has the Qur'an been hijacked? Or simply misunderstood? Where does the Shari'ah fit into this scheme?
We must therefore return to the original texts and seek answers in fourteen hundred years of Muslim history.