Contemporary Islamic Conscience in Crisis

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Can the 1,000-year Muslim civilisation make an original contribution to the concert of cultures and civilizations?

By Tariq Ramadan

From Asia to North America, by way of the Middle East, Africa and Europe, the conclusion is inescapable : The contemporary Islamic conscience is in deep crisis. How to be a Muslim today? How to be faithful to one’s principles while remaining open to the world ? How can Muslims deal with their diversity and overcome their multiple divisions? Can Muslim majority societies create new models of development, education and social justice? Can they imagine economic alternatives ?
Can the 1,000-year Muslim civilisation make an original contribution to the concert of cultures and civilizations? Everywhere, Muslim women and men, individuals and societies, ask themselves the same burning questions. The crisis drags on, no answer seems in sight. The light at the end of the tunnel seems nothing but an illusion.
Islam’s spiritual, religious and philosophical message is as clear as it is demanding. Humans are free beings who must assume full responsibility for their freedom by striving spiritually and intellectually for peace. Islam means the quest for peace : that of the heart as well as that of society : peace between citizens as well as nations. The message requires that we not neglect a single condition of peace, to keep constantly in mind the order and priority of ultimate goals. And if the ultimate of these goals is to respond to the Creator, and to love Him, if the essence of hope goes beyond the horizon of our earthly lives, it is no less true that life on this earth (“do not forget your part in this world”), knowledge (a message for those “imbued with intelligence”), dignity (“We have conferred dignity upon the children of Adam”), freedom (“No compulsion in religion”) and justice (“God commands justice and spiritual excellence”) are values and principles, and objectives to be attained in the here and now.
Our ultimate goals are clear ; believers must participate in a jihad of humanity, dignity and conscience with their full hearts, minds and souls. As free beings, they are called upon to act, with all the intensity of their faith, and to reform themselves and the world. Faith and belief in the One and Only means that they must never abandon hope among human beings. The most visible, the most serious signs of the crisis of the contemporary Islamic conscience can be found in the inversion of means and ends, and in the reversal of the order of the essential and the secondary. Inversion and reversal best describe the crisis that afflicts virtually every aspect of human activity, up to and including Islam’s spiritual message.
Believers are summoned to live their lives in the presence of the One and Only, by consciously behaving “as though they can see Him”. But many today, obsessed by their actions, their organisations, their movements, by power and money act in His name while forgetting the ultimate goal. Means have replaced ends, and the spiritual basis of action is lost, like a person at prayer who focuses his entire attention on the ritual movements of his body while forgetting to turn his heart upwards.
In dismay, some have sought to resist the drift by turning to spiritual teachings or joining mystic circles. Some have found genuine equilibrium, while among others we can observe troublesome excesses. While spirituality should help us change our lives, such peoples’ spiritual experience stands apart from their lives, which remain almost entirely untouched by the spiritual and ethical teachings they claim to follow. But at the heart of the Islamic message lies the shaping of free, responsible and autonomous beings in their relationship with God and with man. We have entered into a danger zone where a warped Muslim spirituality engenders human beings who are either potentially schizophrenic or suffer from serious emotional handicaps. The education of the heart should remind us of the ultimate goals of our existence. Instead it ends up neglecting the most basic of all teachings. Spiritual exile is a means whose ultimate objective is reconciliation of the human being with his heart in a state of humility and peace. To exile oneself for the sole sake of exile may well be, in this perspective, a trap set by the ego that must be mastered and that, maliciously, may well end up dominating once again : the inversion is a pernicious one.
We find the same inversion when we examine the question of Islamic rules and regulations (the licit and the illicit, halal and haram) in today’s world. Whether a question of personal practice or social regulation, or even of applied legislation, we encounter the same dilemma : the hypertrophy of norms that limit, forbid and accuse while forgetting the higher objectives for the attainment of which, these same rules and laws were established in the first place. Discounting the most literalist trends, this reflex can be noted among a large number of jurisprudents (fuqaha) and simple believers who confuse respect for norms, while failing to take account of context and ultimate goals, with fidelity and its finality. The rule should be the means ; now it has been transformed into an end.
Of course, we must assert, and emphasise, that clear-cut and unchangeable practices, duties, and proscriptions exist and must be respected. It is also true that some of them require knowledge of the context in which they apply if we wish to remain faithful to their logic.
The treatment of animals provides an excellent example. Concentrating on the licit quality of meat slaughtered according to strict Islamic rules leads to overlooking, and not challenging, the unacceptable treatment of living creatures (including by Muslims). This holds true in such diverse areas as social justice, relations between women and men, racism, pluralism, etc.
The Messenger (Pbuh) clearly defined his message in terms of rules and regulations, but also above and beyond them : “I was sent to complete proper [ethical] behaviour.” A rule is only as good as the ultimate goal that lends it its meaning. To pray without remembering the Unique One is no longer to pray.
The crisis is acute. To resolve it, there must be an awakening, a renewal, and a revolution, in the literal sense , in our way of thinking. We are coming to the end of a historic cycle the likes of which Islamic civilisation has experienced many times before. Scholars and thinkers of the new generations will emerge to carry out the fundamental reform as to the way of reading the sacred texts in a spirit of renewal, faith and courage. Women and men who embody a reform of consciences that resists the dehumanisation of their spiritual being, who refuse to accept the world as it is, and who commit themselves to reform in their hearts and societies, not by adapting to what they have become, but by transforming them and leading them to what they must become, in freedom, dignity and peace.
(The writer is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the Oxford University (Oriental Institute, St Antony’s College, UK)