Friday, July 10, 2009

Shiʿi Ethics in the 21st Century: Beyond Jurisprudence and Politics

Shiʿi Islam has been for centuries a minority trend, the praised few defending the light in a world of darkness, adhering to the devotion and the cause of the friends of God and promoting the notion of being virtuous agents in the world, believers whose faith demanded testing, striking a path of being a muʾmin mumtaḥan. The pursuit of moral agency and excellence was therefore a pathway towards realisation, an examined life, and a commitment to living the multilogical walāya of the Imams. Contemporary Shiʿism finds itself at odds with this tradition, forced to rehearse the conflicts of the past between ghuluww and taqṣīr, and locked in an argument about whether the faith is an other-worldly denial of this dystopian world, or a call to establish a utopian order of the faithful who inherit and realise the true purpose of creation, or whether the faith articulates an essential opposition and dissent speaking truth to illegitimate power or provides the basis for authority that justifies the exercise of power within the modern state. The de-centring of a moral and spiritual core in the de-sacralised present is not peculiar to Shiʿi Islam; in fact, elements of what I want to discuss are clearly discernable in modern developments within Sunni Islam, various Indian religions and the like. This is not an argument for exceptionalism. But the particular details of features that I suggest inhibit the full realisation of moral Shiʿi selves in the present are rooted in the historical contingencies of modern Shiʿism. I would like you to consider this presentation as an introspective provocation, a search for the core self, an articulation of the famous statement and call to action man ʿarafa nafsahu fa-ʿarafa rabbahu. As such I will not deny that this is more of a polemic than a dispassionate, academic consideration of the nature of ethics, jurisprudence and law in contemporary Shiʿi Islam. At the same time, I do not claim that I am expressing something new – many before me have already indicated the malaise of our situation and many others will no doubt continue to do so.

I want to suggest that developments since the 19th century especially pose a threat to the nature of Shiʿi communities and belief in our contemporary age through the wilful obliteration of the tradition in two key areas of jurisprudence and law. In many ways, some of the themes that interest me have already been discussed by my colleague. The crisis of authority that is posed in the idiom of the contestations around the marjaʿiyya is symptomatic of the loss of the Shiʿi self in the contemporary, or rather of the oblivion of the confidence of being a minority alienated in this world. We live in the age of the oblivion of the self in which the question of authentic living and what it means to be Shiʿi is entangled in cultural identity politics and not a pursuit of moral agency. The basic dichotomies of understanding the nature of the world have been sidelined which have been part of the intellectual traditions of our inheritance and perhaps require a quick rehearsal:

· The complementarity between ḥaqq and ḥaqīqa, between the underlying reality of the divine and the manifest reality of our cosmos – the idea of the gracious and just God producing a world of grace and justice that allows us to fulfil our moral obligations by realising our humanity

· The desire to see the two poles of the world as a pursuit of understanding and recognising wujūd and walāya, being and becoming, striking the balance between the utter transcendence and immanence of the Divine, and

· The need to balance the exoteric and the esoteric, neither straying too far into the denial of the heart of one or a rampant antinomianism of the other

Of course, there is an idealism and elitism and perhaps essentialism in what I have said so far but the institution of the marjaʿiyya, the privileging of jurisprudence over all else in the madrasa and the politics of religion and state in more recent decades, exemplified in the theory of state known as wilāyat al-faqīh, have robbed ordinary believers of their basic moral agency and obligation and left us in a state in which we are reliant on a small group of individuals, some of whom are of rather dubious moral ethics, to fulfil our humanity, surrendering personal and even collective responsibility to the few. I am interested in how one can effect the ethical turn and reinvigorate communities, thought and spiritual life, an exigency of our diasporic communities in Europe and North America as much as those in the Middle East and South Asia. That there is a reality is not contested; but it is not a given, assumed and accepted, but rather interrogated and disclosed. Understanding and making sense of that reality requires a critical hermeneutics that balances the three sets of dichotomies that I have mentioned. I want to indicate some suggestions forward that focus on the ethical turn and the requisite hermeneutics of the text for our time.

But first I want to begin with the diagnosis, with the legal turn and the statist shift of modern history.

The Legal Turn

That the Shiʿi community has, on the whole, become the juristically compliant people par excellence is rather difficult to deny. It is not entirely a joke to suggest that in certain household the presence of a risāla ʿamaliyya on the bookshelf is more evident than other works, the site of Sayyid Sīstānī for example, holding an enviable slot in the favourites folder of many a web browser. I remember when I was 10 going to madrasa, in effect Sunday school in Hammersmith, we were barely trained in the fundamentals of the faith, not assisted in making sense of what it meant to be Shiʿi in London, but rather were made to memorise the risāla of Sayyid Khūʾī, perhaps a useful mnemonic exercise in itself although with rather limited implications for the future. You may think that I am generalising from the experience of a middle class South Asian experience but this anecdotal understanding is corroborated by many others who have grown up in Iranian, Iraqi and other contexts. The minutiae of compliance take precedence over the basic understanding of the central concept of Shiʿi Islam, namely walāya.

The privileging of positive law (fiqh) and jurisprudence and legal theory and hermeneutics that comprise uṣūl al-fiqh within the ḥawza is not entirely a new phenomenon and no doubt reflected the quotidian exigencies of believers. The faith has thus become purely about law. The slogan that Islam is comprehensive and provides a complete set of rules and guidelines for life makes the notion of the shariʿa a totality but in the privileged hands of jurists, in effect, it telescopes fiqh into a mechanism that covers every aspect of life, even more so in recent decades with the extension of the scope of the law into the public space, the political arena and the realm of finance and economics. What are the features of this obsessive focus on fiqh?

· The narrow scholasticism of the text in which the context is purely the text itself and the juristic tradition that discusses the text. Little attempt is made to draw out the relevance of the text and to situate it either historically or in the present. The hermeneutics of the text certainly genuflects towards a multivocal reading and understanding but in practice often avoids it.

· The dual mechanism of ijtihād and taqlīd does not produce moral agents, but complaints humans who was been absolved of the responsibility of their actions by jurists who take on the burden. We pride ourselves on having retained the tradition of ijtihād for centuries and yet little actual independent legal reasoning is performed and the provisional nature of much of what accounts for the uṣūl al-fiqh tradition is made permanent. There is no ijtihād, no new thinking, and certainly no creative hermeneutics in uṣūl. No doubt one of the factors determining this is the very modes of teaching and training jurists in the ḥawza.

· The institution of the marjaʿiyya (itself a rather recent phenomenon I would argue and indeed has been argued by Ahmad Kazemi Mousavi and others being traceable to Mīrzā-ye Qummī, Shaykh Najafī and Shaykh Anṣārī in the nineteenth century) and its centrality has led to the abnegation of moral responsibility, the imitation of practice authorised by the traditional hermeneutics that is called taqlīd. This is enough in itself, without the scandals of corruption, impropriety, lack of moral conduct on behalf of the representatives of the marājiʿ and indeed at time of the marājiʿ themselves that are elements further indicting the institution. The very conditions of marjaʿiyya articulated in works of uṣūl fail to live up to their definitions. In practice, it is not aʿlamiyya or taqwā or waraʿ or any such high virtue that defines a marjaʿ; it is rather cold hard cash raised through khums, social and political organisation, and astute manipulation. If indeed, for example, Shaykh Fayyāḍ is the most learned and pious uṣūlī in Najaf as many say, why is he not the paramount marjaʿ?

· We have become a sharʿia compliant people and not a moral people. Elements of the language of morality are retained in the value range from ḥarām to wājib but there is little reflection on what constitutes ethical living. Fiqh is a vehicle for understanding and fulfilling our moral obligation, our taklīf, the burden that we place on ourselves once a rational decision has been reached to believe. It is not co-extensive with ethics as such. The reduction of ethics in Islam to fiqh does a fundamental problem. While some in nineteenth North India attempted to balance this by focusing on akhlāq and ādāb, this remained an elite discourse and has been quickly forgotten.

It is not sufficient to absolve the non-juristic disciplines of the ḥawza either. The tendency towards ḥikmat and ʿirfān does not balance the stress upon the fiqh but becomes an expression of a staunch ba-sharʿ spirituality.

Scholasticism of maʿqūlāt

But before I move onto the statist shift, a quick corollary of the legal turn is the scholasticism of the seminary. The discrepancy of actually philosophical and ethical/political within the ḥawza is disturbing indeed. Ideas are rehearsed and much like the modern academic philosophy department, people trained in the history of thought but rarely inspired to think themselves. The hegemony of the school of Mullā Ṣadrā is one of the central problems. The quite brilliant but flawed Shirazi has not escaped the spectacular presumptions or the abuses of posterity. His philosophical method of tashkīk has been interpreted as a system and then become the system or the definition of Shiʿi philosophy that is juxtaposed and then compared to everything from Advaita Vedanta to Aquinas to Wittgenstein. But for Mullā Ṣadrā, our hermeneutics of the books of the Qurʾan and the cosmos are inherently unstable. Our grasping of reality is fleeting; our reification and essentialisation of it a wilful distortion and misrepresentation. The strong condemnation of intellectual taqlīd articulated by Mullā Ṣadrā seems to have been totally forgotten.

There is a true lack of independence in matters intellectual and the truly original marginalised. Let me cite one example, again from North India. Sayyid Murtażā Nawnehravī was one of the most creative Shiʿi thinkers of the early twentieth century, entirely trained in the dars-e niẓāmī curriculum in India but having spent most of his life in his hometown of Ghāzīpūr in Eastern UP. His Miʿrāj al-ʿuqūl fī sharḥ duʿāʾ Mashlūl published in Ghāzīpūr in 1914 is a wonderful text, perpetuating an honourable tradition of the expression of philosophy through exegesis. But it has been sorely neglected – copies are rare to find and he himself never achieved any recognition at the intellectual centre of Shiʿi Islam in India, Lucknow. The clear reason for this was his independent minded approach to texts and his time. He wrote works on the ritual purity of Hindus and encouraged social discourse against the isolationism of the Lucknow ʿulama, and even strongly condemned the insistence on slaughtering cow. He also made the mistake of vehement criticising the two main idols of the hierocracy in matters of belief and rational theology, namely ʿAllāma Majlisī and also Ghufrān Maʾāb Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī Naqvī. The result is that a work that is truly liberal in both its jurisprudence and hermeneutics, inclined to the spiritual life and contemplation, eloquent in its Arabic expression, is not even known to specialists.

A New political theory – Wilāyat al-faqīh

While the relationship of Shiʿism and politics is not a new one, the well known theory of the legitimate authority of the jurist or wilāyat al-faqīh marks a significant statist shift in Shiʿi thought and the absurd culmination and implication of the marjaʿiyya. I will not rehearse the theory which requires little introduction but instead focus on some critical remarks:

· The juristic context of the emergence of the theory is clear and represents a new opening of the area of public fiqh. However, as a political theory based on the notion that the ruler should be qualified as a jurist, a conception that conceives of the qualifications of political power in legal terms and indeed sees the ruler primarily as judge and arbiter, it is clear that the theory has little to do with traditional Shiʿi conceptions of authority and rather is much concerned with a Sunni conception of the caliphate. In the twentieth century, it was Rashīd Ridā’s notion that the head of the state ought to be a mujtahid which is closest to wilāyat al-faqīh. Beyond this, Muḥsin Kadīvar has done an excellent job in Naẓariyya-hā-ye dawlat dar fiqh-e shiʿeh to contextualise the theory and place it as one among many others.

· While it is no doubt an innovative political theory, the lack of serious political philosophy among the Shiʿa in the ghayba, consistently decried by a number of thinkers including Sayyid Javād Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Sayyid Muḥammad Khātamī and Jamīleh Kadīvar is not really compensated by it.

· Wilāyat al-faqīh represents the culmination of the abnegation of individual moral and collective responsibility initiated by the marjaʿiyya. But even more than that it infantilises believers in the ultimate act of condescension. Traditionally it is of course minors and the intellectually infirm who deserve the guardianship of senior members of the community, especially the jurists as general representatives of the Imam. At the same time, there is a basic contradiction. As the late great Mihdī Ḥāʾirī put in it in his excellent critique entitled Ḥikmat va ḥukūmat, published not surprisingly in London in 1996, the theory at once assumes that the people are like children and the mentally challenged and yet gives them the democratic right through the ballot box to determine who is the valī-ye faqīh.

· Of course, once one gets to the maximal conception in the absolute authority of the jurist things are taken further still. The power of such a jurist is beyond the constitutionality of parliamentary politics and the transparency and accountability of the separation of powers. His authority over the basic rituals of the faith makes the denial of ethics complete.

Before I conclude with some comments on the ethical turn and the need for a new hermeneutics, let me digress slightly on a further issue of the descent of moral agency.

Cultural Authenticity versus the pursuit of the good

In many of our communities, we have sacrificed the pursuit of the good and the practice of moral agency in favour of an identity politics of cultural authenticity. One good example and a controversial one at that is the practice of taṭbīr. The demands for culturally authentic and exclusively Shiʿi practices sanctioned by the state can be seen especially in Pakistan, India and Bahrain where political alliances inimical to the welfare of believers, that fail to enable the flourishing of the moral life have been made in the name of cultural authenticity. Political rights and claims upon the state in the public sphere forsaken in return for the state’s indulgence to practice taṭbīr. I am not making any value judgements as such about the nature of taṭbīr, its moral or legal status but just trying to point out the myopia of such a position.

So how do we regain our moral agency?

By Way of Conclusion

· Taqlīd must be forsaken and moral responsibility for the self and for one’s own actions regained; it is after all we ourselves who will stand before our Lord. This does not mean that one confines fiqh to the dustbin of history but one needs to be more watchful and critical of jurists.

· The state needs to become either neutral with respect to moral agency or an enabler of the pursuit of the good and not a hindrance. Wilāyat al-faqīh as an experiment has come and failed and we need to move on. The essential intellectual work now is to de-couple the concept from the theology of the imamate with which it has been confused and conflated by the likes of Āyatollāhs Miṣbāh and Javādī Āmulī.

· Believers need to be empowered to regain their moral agency and the role of education is critical to provide them with the intellectual tools to understand their situation, to privilege a critical intellectual culture placing philosophy properly at the foundation, and training people in the basics of belief, and both strands of theology, namely the understanding of the human condition within this cosmos and the big questions of the nature of God and his communication and interaction with us. We need the ʿulama to be public theologians and not jurists and judges foremost.

· Finally, we need to be more sophisticated with the text and recognise that our understanding of our situation and who we are evolves and hence so should our engagement with the text on the horizon of our experience. At times, the silences of the text need to be retained and at other times the noises of the text perhaps politely ignored.


Anonymous said...

Appreciate these meditations Sajjad. IMHO, the Traditions speak pretty clearly about this day:

وقال عليه السلام : كائن في أمتي ما كان من بني إسرائيل حذو النعل بالنعل والقذة بالقذة ، وإن الثاني عشر من ولدي يغيب حتى لا يرى ، ويأتي على أمتي زمن لا يبقى من الإسلام إلا اسمه ولا من القرآن إلا رسمه ، فحينئذ يأذن الله له بالخروج فيظهر الإسلام ويجدد الدين . ثم قال عليه السلام : طوبى لمن أحبهم وطوبى لمن تمسك بهم ، والويل لمبغضهم

Anonymous said...

This passage from 'Abd al-Baha' describes things well:

mohammed.husain said...


You've certainly highlighted some problems that the Shi'i community faces- but somehow I think your language is too polemical and too specialized to really gain a hearing outside the academies.

You describe the disconnect that often appears in the lives of Shi'is between ethical living and mere abidance by fiqh. Certainly this underscores a problem in conceptual understanding and perhaps also in the derivation of fatawa. But your conclusion would strike many as being quite radical: "Taqlīd must be forsaken and moral responsibility for the self and for one’s own actions regained; it is after all we ourselves who will stand before our Lord." Most defenders of taqlid say that the marjiyyah system is analogous to a system of specialization that we might find in other areas, like medicine. The taqlid system offers practical guidance to people- sure there are a number controversies on a number of issues, including the system of education itself- but to forsake taqlid, seems to me to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

You mention a general overemphasis on fiqh, which there is evidently. But many madaris have attempted to go beyond that a little with things like Sayyed Mousavi Lari's books on Islamic doctrine. This to me is a good start. There are a lot of complex issues here in terms of religious education- but somehow I think with your background in philosophy and hermeneutics and mysticism your expectations are so high that you come away feeling overly pessimistic.

mohammed.husain said...

"While it is no doubt an innovative political theory, the lack of serious political philosophy among the Shiʿa in the ghayba, consistently decried by a number of thinkers including Sayyid Javād Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Sayyid Muḥammad Khātamī and Jamīleh Kadīvar is not really compensated by it."

While this may be true, I would think that some mention should be made of those contemporary Shi'i thinkers who are engaging contemporary political discourse both Western and Islamic, like Ahmad Vaezi (Shia political thought) and Hamid Hadji Haidar (A theory of religious democracy; Islam and liberalism). Surely even, if we find their analysis inadequate and wanting, they should be deserving of some mention.